Dentists Dr Adam Durning (left), Dr Jino Kunnethedam and dental assistant Jessi Podjursky at The Dentists clinic in Whanganui. Photo / Bevan Conley
The amount paid in emergency dental grants in Whanganui has almost doubled since 2017.
Data from the Ministry of Social Development shows the amount of money granted to people in the Whanganui district for emergency dental care increased from $358,557 in 2017 to $656,462 in 2021, with the majority of the increase coming from advance benefit payments.
An MSD spokesperson said the ministry provided recoverable and non-recoverable financial assistance for essential items including dental care.
The maximum amount available currently for a non-recoverable special needs grant for dental treatment is $300, though the ministry said in exceptional circumstances the amount may be exceeded.
The number of special needs grants for dental treatment over a year had increased from 615 in 2017 to 723 in 2021.
The number of advance payments of a person’s benefit, which are also available to pay for dental care if a person does not qualify for the grant, had also increased from 441 in 2017 to 654 in 2021.
Adam Durning of The Dentists Whanganui thought the increase was due to a higher number of people becoming eligible for the grants.
“I would think it’s proportionally related to the number of people who are either on the unemployment benefit or are eligible for assistance through those grants.
“So if the proportions of people are going up, then there must be more people meeting that criteria for those grants,” he said.
He said every person who comes in for treatment at his clinic gets asked whether they are on the benefit or other financial aids.
“Whenever a client comes in we ask are you on a benefit? When was the last time you went to a dentist? Are you eligible for any grants? And if they say yes then we assist them with that.”
Durning wasn’t sure if the number of people at The Dentists paying for treatment with grants had increased, due to there being seven dentists at the Whanganui branch and generally, the dentists not having a set clientele.
However, he did say The Dentists had a branch in Patea and Whanganui dentists often travelled into South Taranaki to provide care to people primarily on the benefit as they were unable to travel to Whanganui for care.
“As health professionals, we just go up to try and help that community, so we do see a large number in Patea.”
He said in Whanganui people receiving dental care while on the benefit were spread across all the services in the city.
As part of Budget 2022, the Government announced the maximum amount available to people for dental care through the grant will increase from $300 to $1000 on December 1 this year.
Durning hoped the increase in the grant would make dental care even more accessible and allow dentists to provide better care for people.
“I would like to think it does (make the grants more accessible), I’m sure that’s what the objective is, is to get people to be able to stabilise their teeth.”
He also said the increase in the maximum grant may motivate people who have had their teeth assessed and know they have other issues, but couldn’t afford to get them treated, to request getting extra treatment done.
“If you had to wait until you had a toothache to be able to obtain your grant, that’s pretty negative in itself, to live your life when you only have access to it with pain,” he said.
However, he did say accessibility for dental care was also affected by the social stigma around dental care.
“Even if dentistry is free, or the grant is raised to $1000, are these people still going to take advantage of it… because it’s not the most favourite place for anyone to go.”
To help break this stigma he advocated for the quality of care Whanganui dentists provide.
“We’ve got great dentists in Whanganui in general, I’m not just talking about my practice, in general, we’ve got an excellent group of dentists and an excellent group of practices, and I can honestly say we’re all focused on helping these people out,” he said.
MSD said the number of grants was not the same as the number of people, some people may have successfully applied for more than one grant within a year, and the amount granted may not be the same as the amount spent.