Election 2023: Greens share heartbreaking stories of Kiwis not able to afford dental care

The Green Party has heard stories of New Zealanders forgoing dental work for decades due to the cost, with others having to resort to borrowing money from family or trying to treat their health issues themselves.

The political party, which last week unveiled an ambitious new dental policy that includes free check-ups and basic care, has over the past two weeks been appealing for New Zealanders to share their stories about dental care - or lack thereof.

It received more than 500 submissions, with nearly all saying they had to put off going to the dentist because they couldn't afford it. Most had to go into debt because of the cost and have had to take time off school or work because of dental-related pain. 

"I asked for help in late 80s [and] I was told the cost was $7500. No way could I afford it," one person said. "My teeth are terrible. Three weeks ago, I suffered a heart attack, I believe my teeth have been a factor in [the] heart attack."

Another person, who said they were in their mid-40s and had a degree in teaching, said they hadn't been to the dentist since they were 18.

"I fear for my teeth but am too scared of the cost," they said.

One submitter said they had to "file down chipped/broken teeth" themselves with a nail file as they couldn't afford care. 

Another wrote they were "too embarrassed to smile and laugh in public because I'm missing upper teeth". 

"I was sickly as a child and am predisposed to poor teeth. It's too late for me as I didn't know this growing up.  I'm educated but living vs dental $ is always 1:0."

Green Party health spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March said the stories were "dire, but not surprising". 

"The failure of successive Governments to include dental care in the public health system has pushed some people to breaking point. No one should go broke just to fix their teeth."

The MP said the pain doesn't have to be a given and that change only requires political willpower.

"Over 98 percent of people that submitted to us said they struggled to afford care. Sixty-one percent said they went into debt and another 72 percent said they've had to take time off school or work because of pain relating to untreated issues.

"None of this should be acceptable in a country as wealthy as ours. Gaps in accessing oral health care in Aotearoa are clear and they are unfair."

The Green Party is proposing free annual check-ups and cleanings, free dental care (like fillings, sealants and teeth removal), mobile dental vans and portable clinics and community-based specialist care. This would be paid for through the Greens' proposed wealth tax.

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall this week said she was aware people forgo the dental care they need because of the cost. 

"I’ve seen it in my own practice and I'm aware that that's an issue across the country." 

She believed embedding dental care into the free health system was an "important aspiration" and pointed to the work the Government had been doing on improving access to emergency dental grants. 

However, Dr Verrall said while work had been underway to improve the dental workforce, it wasn't at a level yet where universal care could be offered. 

The Greens want to increase the number of training places for dental students and support Māori and Pasifika to pursue careers in dentistry.

Last year, the Government made changes to allow people on low incomes or on a benefit to apply for up to $1000 a year to help with immediate or essential dental treatment, like fillings and the treatment of gum infection. 

Before the changes were made, people could only apply for one grant of up to $300 per year and only if the treatment was necessary due to an emergency situation.

Since the changes were implemented in December, the number of dental grants and the amount paid out has risen, according to Written Parliamentary Question data.

In the December 2022 quarter, there were 15,144 dental treatment special needs grants handed out, totalling $7.4 million. In the March 2023 quarter, this had risen to 21,816 grants worth $15.4 million.

Menéndez March asked Dr Verrall in Parliament earlier this month whether she recognised dental check-ups not being covered by the grants was negatively contributing to Kiwis' oral health. 

"The purpose of the hardship grants is for treatment and a check-up is not included in that," she replied.

"However, I agree with the member's point that it is beneficial to have them because that allows early treatment. 

"However, I'm not sure, were we to do that, whether the hardship grant would be the right mechanism for achieving a check-up which is a regular preventive part of one's healthcare. Indeed, I am aware that cost is a barrier to accessing that, and one that I am concerned about."

The Greens have also discovered over the past year, there have been nearly 10,000 instances of people requiring general anaesthetic for dental work.

The number of discharges where the primary diagnosis was diseases of the oral cavity, salivary glands and jaws has also not significantly improved over the past four years. In 2019, there were 13,849 discharges. This fell to 12,505 in 2020 but was at 13,701 last year.