Some NWT residents have gone nearly a year without easy access to dental services since visits were suspended when the pandemic started.
MLA for Nunakput Jackie Jacobson on Wednesday told the Legislative Assembly it has been impossible for some of his constituents to see a dentist since last March.
He said communities like Uluhaktok, Paulatuk and Sachs Harbour normally get two visits a year from dental teams, both of which were cancelled last year due to the pandemic.
“People are needing dental assistance and there’s nothing happening,” said Jacobson.
“They go to the health centre, they are given Tylenol or penicillin to help them with the pain. We need to get this sorted out.”
Dental visits to six NWT communities – Fort Simpson, Fort Resolution, Fort Providence, Sambaa K’e, Norman Wells and Aklavik – restarted in December. Private dentistry clinics in Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith and Inuvik have kept services open throughout most of the pandemic.
All non-urgent dental travel to smaller communities, however, was suspended by the federal government in March.
In communities where dental services remain unavailable, federal agency Indigenous Services Canada supports travel for Non-Insured Health Benefits clients to receive services elsewhere.
Julie Green, the NWT’s health minister, said responsibility for restarting dental services in Nunakput communities lies with Indigenous Services Canada.
Facilities not making the cut
The minister said a working group established to address concerns about dental services had devised a plan to fix “a number of issues, including safety concerns that went beyond Covid-19.”
“Where facilities were not meeting infection control and ventilation requirements, work could not be done in those facilities,” she said.
“This is not a long-term ban on dental services in these communities, but it’s my understanding that teams are now working through potential solutions.”
Green said the six communities to have so far resumed services were part of the plan’s first phase. Those communities have upgraded health centre facilities that meet air exchange and infection control requirements, she said.
Phase two will see seven more communities’ facilities reviewed by the end of June. The minister said Paulatuk and Ulukhaktok will be part of that assessment.
“The residents of Ulukhaktok are going to wait longer for dental services to resume, but that is not because of a lack of money. It’s because we want them to receive those services safely.” Green said.
Lesa Semmler, the MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, told Green residents didn’t always find it easy to follow the process for accessing dental services elsewhere.
Semmler described the “really stringent travel criteria” set out by the Non-Insured Health Benefits program, and Green said she would raise that concern with the federal government.