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Dr. Kellen Smith examines a patient at his dental practice in Calgary, Alta. Calgary's oil patch woes are hurting dentists and other insurance paid professions. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
Dr. Kellen Smith examines a patient at his dental practice in Calgary, Alta. Calgary's oil patch woes are hurting dentists and other insurance paid professions. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Calgary's dentists, therapists and optometrists sideswiped by energy price slowdown Add to ...

Thousands of layoffs that have hollowed out many of Calgary’s downtown office towers are translating into tough times for health-care businesses that offer services covered by workplace insurance plans.

Dentists, massage therapists and optometrists say they’re cutting staff and getting by with lower profits as they wait for the economy to turn around and employment levels to bounce back.

Meanwhile, a human resources expert says employees who have kept their jobs could see cutbacks in their benefits if the downturn drags on much longer.

Related: Alberta's downturn has business owners turning to home offices

Read more: Out of Alberta: The shakeup in Canada’s labour force

Dentist Kellen Smith, 34, who has owned Welcome Smile Dental in the city for eight years, said he had to lay off a support person just this week due to lower demand, especially for elective procedures such as teeth whitening and veneers.

“Now we’re down to two assistants and one receptionist,” he said.

Elsewhere, the dental clinic operated for 35 years by Eli Markovich, 63, at the base of the iconic downtown Calgary Tower is surrounded by empty offices that he says were once a major source of new patients for his practice.

As a result, he has been forced to reduce working hours for one of the five dental hygienists he shares with another dentist. And staff salaries have been frozen for the past two years, along with patient fees.

“I’ve been through this a couple of times already,” said Markovich, recalling previous oil-price related slowdowns in Calgary.

“It tends to get really busy for a while as people fear losing their jobs and they want to take advantage of their insurance benefits. And then things kind of settle down for a bit and we’re in that period now ... This one just seems a little bit longer.”

Times are also tough at the Calgary Centre for Health, says owner Brad Kane, a chiropractor, who estimates patient volume at his clinic on the edge of the downtown core has fallen by 15 per cent since early 2015.

“Our business is tied to benefits programs, whether it’s people being laid off and losing those benefits or the benefit programs being rejigged by the companies,” he said.

Lucinda McMaster, group benefits leader in Calgary for consultant Willis Towers Watson, said large employers have been actively trying to trim benefit costs over the past 18 months by asking employees to use them more efficiently and renegotiating with insurers.

Most programs remain intact, she said, but as the downturn drags on she expects more employers will cut discretionary benefits and try to shift more of the cost burden to the employees.

Optometrist Paul Dame of Downtown Vision Care, who estimates that his firm has experienced a 20 per cent to 25 per cent drop in revenue, said many of his clients are now delaying eye exams and making due with their old glasses to cope with the loss of insurance coverage.

At Alberta Blue Cross, spokeswoman Sharmin Hislop says the non-profit company is selling more individual health and dental care packages as Albertans lose group benefits due to the economy.

She wouldn’t, however, provide any numbers, saying they’re considered proprietary information.

Statistics Canada reports the unemployment rate in Calgary rose to 10.2 per cent in October, the highest since March 1994 when it was 10.1 per cent.

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