Healthy Smiles Ontario (HSO) is a publically funded dental care program for children and youth 17 years old and under from low-income households. The Ministry of Health introduced HSO in 2010 as a 100% provincially funded mandatory program for local health units, providing $1,529,700 in funding for children in Windsor-Essex (2019). HSO covers regular visits to a licensed dental provider within the community or through public health units.
In April 2019, the provincial government introduced its 2019 Budget Protecting What Matters Most (Minister of Finance, 2019). Following the release of the provincial budget, the Ministry of Health introduced changes to the funding models for health units effective January 2020. The changes in funding for local health units include a change from a 25% municipal share, 75% provincial cost-shared budget for mandatory programs to 30% and 70% respectively. In addition, the Ministry notified health units that formerly 100% provincially funded mandatory programs such as HSO would now share these costs with municipalities at the rate of 30%, a download of approximately $458,910.00 to local municipalities.
Oral health is vital to our general health and overall well-being at every stage of life. Most oral health conditions are largely preventable and share common risk factors with other chronic diseases, as well as the social determinants of health, such as income, employment and education, whereby those in the lowest income categories have the poorest oral health outcomes. Approximately 26% of children (0-5 yrs) and 22.6% of children and youth (0-17yrs) in Windsor-Essex County live in low-income households, compared to 19.8% and 18.4% in Ontario (Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, 2019). Tooth decay is one of the most prevalent and preventable chronic disease, particularly among children. In Windsor-Essex from 2011 to 2016, the number of children screened in school with decay and/or urgent dental needs increased by 51%. Tooth decay is also the leading cause of day surgeries for children ages one to five. The rate of day surgeries in Windsor-Essex in 2016 was 300.6/100K compared to 104.0/100K for Ontario, representing a significant cost and burden to the healthcare system (WECHU Oral Health Report, 2018). For children, untreated oral health issues can lead to trouble eating and sleeping, affect healthy growth and development, speech and contribute to school absenteeism.
In 2016, the MOHLTC integrated six publicly funding dental programs into one 100% funded program, providing a simplified enrolment process and making it easier for eligible children to get the care they need. The HSO program was part of Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy commitment to build community capacity to deliver oral health prevention and treatment services to children and youth from low-income families in Ontario. Windsor-Essex Health Unit operates two dental clinics, one in Windsor and one clinic in Leamington. The WECHU provides preventative and restorative services with a team of registered dental hygienists, general dentists and a pediatric dentist. There is about a six-month wait list for services in our current clinics. The number of preventative oral health services provided through the WECHU dental clinics has increased year over year from 1,931 in 2011 to 7,973 in 2017 (WECHU Oral Health Report, 2018).
Community dentists are not required to take patients under the Healthy Smiles Ontario program which can create barriers to accessing services. Changes to the funding model for HSO will not affect the services provided by local dentists and is only applied to local health units. Mixed model funding for public health units and private fee-for-service dental providers, poses a risk to the delivery of the HSO program in Ontario. Based on the data and analysis in the 2018 Oral Health report, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit proposed recommendations to improve the oral health status in Windsor-Essex including: Improve access to oral health services within Windsor-Essex and advocate for improved funding for oral health services and expansion of public dental programs such as Healthy Smiles Ontario to priority populations. Given the growing urgent need and increase in dental decay among vulnerable children in Windsor-Essex and recognizing the existing barriers to access to care, the WECHU recommends that HSO retain its current funding and structure as 100% funded, merging it with the Ontario Seniors Dental Care Program to be a comprehensive dental care program for vulnerable children and seniors in Ontario.
Whereas the WECHU operates a dental clinic in Leamington and Windsor for HSO eligible children with wait times for services exceeding 6 months, and
Whereas one in four children under five years (26.0%), one in five children under 17 years (22.6%), and one in ten seniors (11.4%) in Windsor and Essex County live in poverty, and
Whereas inadequate access and cost remain barriers to dental care for Windsor and Essex County residents, 23.7% report that they lack dental insurance that covered all or part of the cost of seeing a dental professional, and
Whereas indicators show an overall trend of declining oral health status among children in Windsor and Essex County compared to Ontario, and
Whereas the rate of oral health day surgeries for children in Windsor and Essex County (300.6/100K) far exceeds that of Ontario (100.4/100K), and
Whereas there is an increased difficulty in obtaining operating room time for dental procedures in Windsor-Essex with wait times exceeding 1 year for children in need of treatment, and
Whereas there is a chronic underfunding of the Healthy Smiles Ontario program creating barriers to accessing services among local dentists, and
Now therefore be it resolved that the Windsor-Essex County Board of Health recognizes the critical importance of oral health for vulnerable children and youth, and
FURTHER THAT, urges the Ministry of Health to reconsider its decision to download 30% of the funding of the Healthy Smiles Ontario Program to local municipalities, and
FURTHER THAT this resolution be shared with the Ontario Minister of Health, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, local MPP’s, the Association of Public Health Agencies, Ontario Boards of Health, the Essex County Dental Society, the Ontario Association of Public Health Dentistry, the Ontario Dental Association and local municipalities and stakeholders.