Without benefits, some Calgarians find cost of dental visits hard to swallow

An office manager laid off from her position at a Calgary restoration company in January says dental work is a luxury she just can't afford.

"Taking my daughter to the dentist is definitely delayed, as well as myself. Without benefits, it's pretty expensive to get her in for a routine checkup," Jenny Harker told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"I am a single mom, so it's just me paying for anything for me and my daughter. I have put it off this entire year because I had no other choice."

She says roughly $125 for her seven-year-old daughter's routine checkup no longer fits her monthly budget right now.

She's not alone, and some dentists are taking note.

A dentist who operates in Calgary and Airdrie recently posted a Groupon offer for some basic services usually covered by benefits.

That offer slashed a regular fee of $625 for dental exam, cleaning and X-rays down to $225.

That dentist is probably reacting to the current job situation in the province. Last month alone, Alberta lost 18,000 jobs. That's a record.

Men under 25 are now experiencing an unemployment rate of almost 20 per cent. Those dire numbers were last seen in the early 1980s.

CBC News reached out and rounded up some perspectives from a social media group for moms.

Jackee Rumford says her family hasn't been to a dentist in years.

"Hubby has a broken front tooth we can't afford to fix," she said.

Her four-year-old granddaughter needs emergency dental work, but Sandra Burton says the little girl's parents lost their benefits and can't afford the upfront costs.

Janice Herben says she hasn't been to a dentist since she was laid off 2½ years ago.

A dentist practising in Calgary for more than four decades says he has seen his share of boom and bust cycles, but he's noticed a change this time.

"Initially, the effect was that we were quite busy. People were being laid off, getting packaged out. They still had benefits they wanted to take advantage of," Dr. Eli Markovich said.

"That has subsided quite a bit. Now, we are not as busy as we used to be, but my practice is still quite steady."

Bigger problems down the road

He notes not all of his peers can say that, though.

A northeast dentist of about eight years says it might be time to tweak the business model.

"I feel like we have to work a little bit harder and more efficiently to try and get the patients in who want to," Dr. Kellen Smith said.

"But we have a solid base of patients who still have benefits and ones who don't but still come in. There all lots of people out there losing insurance who maybe can't prioritize dentistry the way others can."

Dr. Mintoo Basahti, vice-president of the Alberta Dental Association and College, says people without benefits are cutting back on visits but that can lead to bigger problems down the road.

For example, a cavity that goes untreated for long enough could require the tooth to be pulled.

Lower-cost options

Meanwhile, Harker says she looks forward to a time when dental visits aren't a financial concern.

"I worry about her health, I worry about her teeth," Harker said of her daughter.

"But the cost for even just a routine checkup is pretty hard when you are not working. Every month, I have been trying to fit it into my budget and it just hasn't worked out."

Some lower cost dental options exist. Many dentists offer payment plans. There are public health dental clinics that offer reduced fees at places like the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre and Sunridge Mall.