Funding for free adult dental care used up by COVID-19 response, mental health budget - Chris Hipkins

Any money the Government might have used to provide free dental care to Kiwi adults has been eaten up by COVID-19 and other health issues.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins said on Tuesday dental care has taken a backseat since there are other issues to focus on.

"Mental health was our big focus for last years' budget, and of course COVID-19 came along and has been a big focus for us this year."

It comes after Newshub revealed on Monday the then-Health Minister David Clark was asked almost two years ago to consider raising the age of free dental care to 26, but did nothing.

He received the Ministry of Health report, titled 'Adult Dental Care and Oral Health Issues', in December 2018, which outlines the dire situation many New Zealanders face when it comes to dental care.

"The proportion of the population of adults who are getting regular routine dental care is actually falling," Otago University professor of epidemiology Murray Thomas says.

Now there's evidence linking poor oral health to heart disease and cancer, but the Government doesn't yet have any plans to tackle the problem.

"We haven't got any particular commitments to make at this point on that," Hipkins says.

When questioned about whether Clark dropped the ball when it came to responding to the report, Hipkins doesn't believe he did.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield also wouldn't say if he thinks access to dental care is an issue.

"I don't have anything to add to what the minister said. I think he's answered your question comprehensively."

But the Ministry of Health itself says dental care is so unaffordable for many that acute admissions to hospitals are going up.

"Rates of acute admissions to hospital for dental care have also increased recently," it says.

Figures released to Newshub under the Official Information Act show more than 6000 people turned up to hospital emergency departments last year with dental problems, and data indicates the vast majority should've gone to a dentist.

Of the 655 people who went to emergency departments for their teeth in the Waikato last year, just 66 were accidents.