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Getting treatment for a toothache can be a major hurdle for residents of the NWT’s 27 communities without a dentist, according to Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler.

That’s because residents in pain who go to a health centre may be told dental care isn’t available in the community since Covid-19 has put an end to travelling dental teams. Semmler said largely locum — fill-in medical professionals from other jurisdictions — healthcare workers are not always being properly briefed on protocols and insurance programs that allow residents to be referred to a larger hub with a dentist.

To remedy that, regular MLAs on Monday passed Semmler’s motion urging the health department to clearly direct its employees on how to provide access to emergency dental care.

Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, says accessing emergency dental care has become more challenging for residents of 27 NWT communities since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
NNSL File photo

Semmler said it’s a simple first step to help residents of the 27 NWT communities without a dentist to arrange travel and be treated in a larger centre, with costs billed back to their insurance. 

“If you had a toothache, that would consume your life. There’s certain things that we just can’t live with and they become medical emergencies,” she said. “How are you going to care for your family in a pandemic when you’re having an infection or pain that you can’t control without narcotics?”

Typically, dentists would offer care by travelling to small communities in the Beaufort Delta, Semmler said. Since the pandemic struck, however, she said they haven’t been able to make their rounds.

Semmler previously worked as a nurse and a non-insured health benefits navigator for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. Locum staff being unaware of non-insured health benefits programs was a longstanding issue, she said.

Most people in the 27 NWT communities without dentists would likely be Indigenous, she said. 

That means emergency dental care would be covered under the non-insured health benefits program and Metis health benefits program. If residents are low-income and non-Indigenous, they may also fall under supplementary benefits. 

Because of her past work, Semmler said her constituents and others from small communities contacted her for help, leading her to make the motion.

Help can’t arrive, according to Semmler, “until you explain they need to have the referral, they need to have the travel done within the GNWT. It just gets billed back to these different places.”

As of press deadline, Health Minister Diane Thom didn’t respond to a request for comment on the regular MLAs’ motion.

The motion is a “valid request and concern,” according to Jillian Zdebiak, executive director of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Dental Association.

She said the association supported providing emergency care to small communities by tele-dentistry, triaging calls, using pharmacology or arranging for the patient to see a dentist.

Other considerations should be screening patients for coronavirus symptoms and recent travel history, in addition to addressing the lack of personal protective equipment like gloves and masks for dental professionals, Zdebiak said.

She added that one of the major purposes of dentists providing emergency care is to avoid adding patients to the caseloads of emergency-room doctors.

Alicia Price, office manager of Adams Dental in Yellowknife, said her office had seen a few patients from small communities since the pandemic began. Travel could be an issue, she said.

When accepting patients, the office will screen over the phone to assess patients’ pain and whether they’ve travelled out of territory. Like all dentists in the territory, Price’s office was strictly attending to patients in pain and requiring emergency treatment.

“We’re all in this together. We’re only doing what we’re told at this point, and as soon as life can return to normal, we can also return to normal,” she said.

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Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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