Dental talks at impasse
Association, federal government far apart on funding agreement

Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Jun 19/00) - Talks between the NWT/Nunavut Dental Association and the federal government broke down nearly two weeks ago, an event that doesn't bode well for Northern residents.

Focusing on the percentage of Non-Insured Health Benefits the federal government pays dentists for their services in the two territories, the negotiations hit a stalemate when the association asked for a 10 to 15 per cent pay hike.

The federal government said no and countered with an offer of three per cent.

"We have not accepted that, and negotiations are at an impasse," said Dr. Jim Tennant, the president of the association and the owner of the Hay River Dental Clinic for the last 28 years.

Falling under the jurisdiction of Health Canada, Non-Insured Health Benefits provide a range of medically necessary goods and services for registered First Nations people, Inuit and Innu.

The federal government pays caregivers a certain percentage for the services they perform. Tennant said dentists in Nunavut and the NWT are currently paid 92 per cent of the 1994 territorial fee guide, an amount he said barely covered the overhead dental clinics carry.

"The fees have not been keeping up over the years. That's approximately 20 per cent less than the 2000 fee guide," said Tennant.

Tennant added that the increase they asked for is on par with the amount the federal government currently pays dentists in the Yukon Territory and that the local association just wanted parity with their neighbours to the west.

"We'll accept that because it more accurately reflects the costs of running a practice in the North," he said.

The request was denied on June 6. That decision that will continue to affect the quality of dental care residents in the two territories receive, said Tennant. Not only does the funding shortfall discourage new dentists from moving to the North to practice; Tennant said it means more and more dentists will be flown in to temporarily fill positions.

"We want higher fees so we can attract dentists to reside in the territories. Fly-in dentists do a wonderful job, but there is no continuity in service. It means you'll never be able to see the same dentist twice," he said.

Tennant further added that the federal government was not concerned about the problem, and that it was the general consensus among the association's membership that the governing body was trying to shut down private dentistry in the North.

Iqaluit dentist Dr. Charles Pastori is one of those members.

He said that unless something was done to increase the fee scale, clinics such as the one he owns in Iqaluit will have major problems recruiting dentists.

That could lead to "the potential demise of the dental clinic," said Pastori, a clinic that he has owned for more than 13 years.

"If we can't staff it, we get no income and if we get no income, we're out of business," said Pastori.

The media relations officer for Health Canada declined to comment on the matter and said it would be inappropriate to do so while negotiations were still under way.

When asked why a disparity existed between dentists in the Yukon and Nunavut and the NWT, federal spokesperson Margot Geduld again declined to comment.

"It's not really appropriate to discuss ongoing negotiations," she said.