Concern is growing over some dentists in Ontario no longer accepting patients who use a government funded free dental program for kids.
Additional costs of personal protective equipment (PPE) has led to some dentists spending more to treat patients. This in turn is making it difficult for them to afford to treat patients under the Healthy Smiles Ontario (HSO) program — where kids under 17 years of age in low income families get dental services at no cost.
In a Facebook post, a dentist reportedly told the parents of a four-year-old that they are no longer accepting payments under the program.
The poster cited the reason was because the cost of PPE was over $70. The Ontario Dental Association (ODA) says accessing and purchasing protective equipment is a unique challenge that dentists in Ontario are now faced with.
“We can have physical distancing in the reception area, waiting room, and in the hallway but when you get in that chair, we can’t physical distance,” said Dr. David Stevenson, the chair of the ODA’s Return to Practice Working Group. “We are involved in surgical procedures, in procedures that cause a lot of splatter, a lot of water spray, cause aerosols — so we do need access to the best PPE available.”
In that same Facebook thread posted in a private parents group, the owner of a dental office wrote that with the increasing costs of PPE, they too are no longer accepting patients under the program, because they would “have to pay between $40 to $60 per patient out of pocket.”
Dentists are having to operate in a whole new world, incorporating safety measures in light of the pandemic, which includes limiting the number of patients inside offices and prioritizing emergencies. But Dr. Stevenson says patients should always be warned of changes, including new costs, before the appointment.
“There’s an appropriate way to do that that should be discussed with the patient openly and upfront. No one likes sticker-shock,” Dr.Stevenson said.
Dr. Stevenson, who also owns a private practice, calls this compounding a challenge that existed even before the pandemic, especially for dentists who are also business owners.
He says that the HSO program, which was already underfunded, meant dentists barely made any money from accepting patients under the program to begin with. Now with the pandemic here, they’d be in the red if they accepted those patients.
“During the pandemic we realized that there’s going to be additional challenges in treating people on these programs. We have advocated for the government to get priority access to PPE, specifically to treat patients under these programs,” Dr. Stevenson said. “In no way do we want to make it sound like we’re more important than other healthcare providers, but we’re doing everything we can to ensure that patients get the treatments needed.”
The province says while those enrolled in the HSO program are entitled to access dental services, participating is optional for dental providers.
“The Ministry of Health is aware of recent issues and is currently reviewing the new PPE codes in the context of provincial dental programs including Healthy Smiles Ontario, for children and youth, and the Ontario Seniors Dental Care Program (OSDCP) for seniors,” said a spokesperson from the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care.
Prior to the pandemic, the ministry stated that 8,000 out of 9,000 dentists in Ontario were accepting patients under this program. It’s unclear if that number still stands.