ISC committed to working with First Nations communities, SLFNHA ‘to support and improve access to health care services, including access to dental services’
Tim Brody - Editor
Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) says it recognizes the health challenges facing First Nation communities, particularly those in northern Ontario that are remote and isolated.
In a June 15 media release, Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA) informed that, “Sioux Lookout area First Nations have been experiencing a dental crisis for years, amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA) and Chiefs are calling for immediate action by the federal government.”
The release goes on to state, “For decades, the dental program serving First Nation communities in the Sioux Lookout region has been operated by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) and is based out of Sioux Lookout. During this time, many failures in the dental services provided to more than 25,000 people have been brought to SLFNHA’s attention, where much lobbying and advocacy has taken place to see improved access to dental services.”
SLFNHA says it was made aware of a community member who had died because of dental infections, leading to sepsis and complications, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This death was preventable. Had the infections been treated properly, sepsis would not have occurred. Sepsis is a life-threatening condition requiring immediate treatment,” said Dr. Terri Farrell, Medical Director for SLFNHA. “The death of this patient was preventable and related to the appalling lack of dental services for the communities served by SLFNHA. As we speak, hundreds of children continue to suffer as the waitlist for pediatric dental surgery grows. Children are in pain, and many are becoming malnourished due to an inability to eat.”
“A 2016 Child Health Status Report by SLFNHA indicates that oral health surgery rates for Sioux Lookout area First Nations are 14 times higher than the provincial average,” SLFNHA informed.
“The ISC dental program in Sioux Lookout has failed to meet the needs of communities for many years and there have been long-standing issues with dental infrastructure throughout the region” said Janet Gordon, Chief Operating Officer for SLFNHA in the new release. “The COVID-19 pandemic has now caused the program to implode after years of poor planning and lack of quality assurance or record keeping.”
According to Gordon, SLFNHA has provided ISC with many suggestions and plans for addressing these issues, including offering to take over the Sioux Lookout portion of the program.
“After many months of joint planning for a new facility in Sioux Lookout, ISC has now backtracked and informed us that they have neither the funding nor the authorities to proceed with the plans. We have wasted nearly a year of planning only to find out that ISC will not support our plan and clearly has no strategy of their own to prevent further suffering and death.”
SLFNHA said in the release it has been made aware that ISC will not be reopening the dental clinic in Sioux Lookout, “as it was determined that the building is an unsafe workplace due to longstanding structural issues.”
SLFNHA and the Chiefs Council on Health (CCOH) called on ISC and the federal government to reconsider and support SLFNHA to open a dental clinic in Sioux Lookout and to commit to improve the dental program’s infrastructure, record keeping and services within the First Nation communities.
ISC informed that it, “remains committed to working with First Nations communities, Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA), other regional health partners and the Province of Ontario to support and improve access to health care services, including access to dental services.”
ISC shared that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program has remained available, continuing to provide coverage for dental services, as well as medical transportation expenses (including transportation, meals and accommodations), for eligible patients needing to travel out of community to access dental services.
“In April 2020, ISC entered into formal discussions with SLFNHA about transferring all direct patient dental care to them, consistent with ISC’s Health Transformation agenda to facilitate greater ownership and control of health service delivery by First Nations and Indigenous organizations. Those discussions were temporarily halted by the pandemic, but have since resumed.”
According to ISC, meetings were held between themselves and SLFNHA as recently as June 4 and 18.
“ISC continues to work with SLFNHA to explore options for the health authority to establish a facility through which dental services will be provided.”
ISC also shared, “Early in the pandemic, dental services across the province were limited to emergent and urgent needs only, following guidance from Ontario dental regulators and public health authorities. As dental regulatory guidance evolved, ISC began to safely increase service levels back in communities through contracted dental professionals.
“During this time, and following an assessment of the existing dental facility in Sioux Lookout, ISC advised SLFNHA that it could not safely reopen the dental clinic due to the condition of the building. ISC continues to work with SLFNHA to explore opportunities to ensure continued delivery of dental services. Dental care funded through the NIHB program remains available to all First Nations clients in Ontario, including at clinics in Sioux Lookout should NIHB clients wish.”
During the weeks when dental services were limited due to the pandemic, ISC said emergency dental services remained available and, since November 2020, service levels have continued to increase. “Between November 4, 2020 and June 2, 2021, dentists and dental hygienists contracted to the NIHB program have made 89 community visits to 26 communities, providing care to 7,158 patients. Also, from December 2, 2020, to June 17, 2021, 182 children have been treated through the dental surgery program at Meno Ya Win Health Centre in Sioux Lookout.”
ISC says it will continue to work with SLFNHA and First Nations communities to improve access to dental services. “SLFNHA is currently working to assess and retrofit community dental facilities so that they can resume normal day-to-day operations. ISC welcomes the continued dialogue to explore opportunities for the devolution of dental services to SLFNHA,” ISC stated.