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The B.C. government plans to increase the number of dental surgeries done in the province by 15 per cent this year, as part of a strategy to improve access to dental care for vulnerable patients including disabled children and adults.

The strategy, announced on Monday by B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, follows years of lobbying by patients and advocacy groups frustrated by waits of months or even years for dental surgeries for people including children with autism and adults with dementia, who are not safely able to get dental care without anesthesia.

“Too many people with intellectual or developmental disabilities have not been able to access timely dental care. And as a result, they all too often suffer with severe and preventable deterioration in their dental health,” Faith Bodnar, executive director of advocacy group Inclusion B.C. said at a news conference held at B.C. Children’s Hospital.

That decline in dental health is often followed by other, related health problems, Ms. Bodnar said.

“Without access to hospital-based dental care … they can wait in agony, at times for years, because there just isn’t sufficient [operating room] access,” she added.

There was no budget figure attached to the announcement, which is part of a broader strategy to reduce surgical wait lists in B.C.

The province expects 900 more dental surgeries to be done this coming year – the fiscal year ending March 31, 2019 – than will be done this year.

That 15-per-cent increase, from 6,200 to 7,100 surgeries, will amount to the largest one-time increase in dental surgery in the province, Mr. Dix said. The province says 7,100 surgeries and treatments will continue to be performed annually after 2019.

The B.C. initiative comes as provinces and territories are grappling with how to address gaps in access to dental care for vulnerable populations, including children, seniors in long-term care, people with special needs, new immigrants and Indigenous people.

Joan Rush, a lawyer who has spearheaded a campaign called, “Help! Teeth Hurt” that is pushing for a specialized dental clinic in B.C. for adults with developmental disabilities, welcomed the surgery initiative.

Ms. Rush launched the campaign out of frustration over trying to access appropriate care for her now-adult son, Graeme, who has autism and is non-verbal.

He allows caregivers to brush and floss his teeth, but for more extensive dental treatment, such as x-rays or cleaning, he needs to be under general anesthesia.

For months beginning in 2006, Mr. Rush repeatedly banged his head – hard enough that he permanently damaged one ear. For several reasons – including uncertainty over whether his behaviour indicated a problem with his teeth or other medical concerns – it would be more than a year before he was sedated for a full checkup. By that time, in early 2008, he had more than a dozen cavities and five teeth that were infected enough to require immediate root canals.

“The approval of more dental surgery in hospitals is an important first step in addressing the problem of access to treatment,” Ms. Rush said on Monday in an e-mail.

Mr. Dix said the surgical initiative would involve the two operating rooms at B.C. Children’s Hospital and other sites around the province.

Dental treatments and surgeries are currently performed in 52 hospitals through the province.

According to the province, 15 per cent of cases waiting for dental surgery in the province wait longer than 26 weeks. The 26-week threshold is among federal benchmarks for wait-time targets for surgeries such as hip and knee replacements.

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