Why, 40 years after the introduction of Medicare, this sudden concern for our teeth? Wrong question for a start. It has nothing, or very little to do with the state of our teeth. The dental “profession” has made a deal with the government, reluctantly, after all these years, that they will treat the teeth of the less wealthy if the government will fork out $4250 towards it. This enables the noble ‘profession’, which long ago almost priced itself out of its natural local market, to continue business. Few will remember that back when Medicare was introduced the opportunity to include dentistry was offered but, as a doctor who was around back then recently told me, eyes glinting with naughtiness, he and his doctor mates advised their dentist mates not to get mixed up in Medicare if, unlike the doctors, they had an option. The paperwork was hell and they could make much more money if they stayed private; in Doc A’s words, ‘We told them “you fellows can name your prices! You lucky bastards!” ‘ So they did. And as overseas students graduated and returned home to south east Asia, the Philipines and the Happy Isles of Oceania and started offering good dental service at meaningful rates to the “cashed up bogans” my Doc B told me about (see episode 1) our local dentists started to feel the absence of the usual cash cows. So, GFC and all that and never being ones for creative thinking they took a lead from the ‘banking and other financial institution’ industry. These rugged individualists went whining to the pinko socialist government to bail them out. What an awesome idea. People wont go to the dentist anymore? What if we pay them to go? But we wont give them the money, we’ll give it to the dentists. Otherwise the ratbags might spend it on drugs or school books for their kids (and that’s the last thing we want. You don’t want those layabouts getting educated, they might catch an idea) or the gas bill, or drugs or gambling, or solar panelss or drugs.
The first (very tentative) approach to this was a few years ago. The Government gave $150 to welfare recipients to get urgent necessary dental work done. Imagine how helpful that would be. About 6 months before this I had had to have a tooth out and I went to the dentist I usually went to if I had to and for $70 had the troublesome tooth removed. About 30 seconds work not counting the time for the anaesthetic to act. Then, 6 months later another tooth came to the end of its time so I rang the same dentist, arranged to come on up and just before I hung up I checked the price. “Still the same as when I had that extraction 6 months ago? $70?” I asked. “Oh no,” she told me, ” we’ve had to put the price up. An extraction is $160 now.” “The hell it is” I thought. It was time I got to know the dental hospital where this 15 mins max of work will cost me $23. It did. They were very kind, careful and I sang their praises. Well did I know that extraction after extraction is hardly the last word in dental care but it was all I could afford and I’d much rather it was done by the lovely young overseas students at the dental hospital than some oaf looking down my throat for his next trip to Provence. Somewhere along the line someone at the Dental Hospital suggested I be put on the waiting list for a ‘Course of Care’ whereby with whatever was left in my mouth by then I could have other stuff done apart from extractions.. “you’ll have to wait a bit” she said, “but what’s to lose?” Time. I think there’s a song about that. If I was good at this blog stuff a crooner would interject at this point singing “if I only had…time or time is all there is and all I’ve got is time..” and you probably know it better than me.
Years rolled on by. Teeth came out. I never expected anything to come of it and anyhow rumours continued to imply the Government planned on introducing a bigger, better Dental Scheme. And they did. $4250 per person. You could get one implant, almost, for that. Doctors wrote referrals and I went off to find a dentist. I have heard people have had good experiences after this point. I visited up to dozen dentists within reach and emailed a few more. Some didn’t want me because they only applied the new scheme to patients already at their practice. Others wanted me to pay the $4000 first, or if it was really hard for me just $500 at each visit and as they did the work and I could take their receipts to Medicare office and get my money refunded, less a bit. They regaled me with said tales about how they had to wait 3 months and more for the money from the government after they’d done the work. They were sure I wouldn’t have the same problem.
The fly in the ointment was that if I had $4000 at my fingertips odds are I’d have a lot more than that and I wouldn’t be eligible for or in need of any Government Dental Scheme. Nor would I want to spend my dollars on local dentists. I’d be off with my $4000+++ for a vacation in Thailand, India, or Vietnam with a complete dental overhaul thrown in while staying in a hospital like a 5Star hotel. Indeed, the Good Doctor told me a family he knew who all moved into the hospital for the last weeks of the holiday while mum was having her teeth done because the facilities there were much better than the 5 star hotel they’d been staying in. The hospital was delighted to accommodate them all. Lovely people.
Anyhow, back to Me. Finally, through Internet, I found a dentist who could fit me in in about 5 months. “Gee” I thought, “if they are that busy they must be good.” The day came round and I met this supercilious twerp who did X-rays but never once looked me in the eye and loudly read out the results for his assistant to take down, proudly using words like occlusion, molar, incisor, canine, bicuspids. He told me that he would extract all my remaining teeth (about half a mouthful) and replace them with top and bottom denture plates. Since the remaining teeth were strong, not loose at all like he tried to tell me, and although no longer very pretty, they did enable me to feed myself, and talk at length in comfort I said I would think about it first. My remaining teeth and I are deeply attached to each other. 15 years ago those teeth withstood the ravages of chemo and radiation while their cohorts fell under the attack and I appreciate their loyalty. Not mind you that I have yet found any oncologist who is prepared to entertain the possibility of any connection between radiation and teeth decaying. “No” they say as one, “no, the radiation is very focused”. Yes, with clever maths in 3 dimensions, (could be 5 or 11 for all I’d know) and that’s why they dump lead sheets all over you before everyone scuttles off out the door and leaves you there to be irradiated. It was about a year after these irradiations that 3 different dentists in a rural community health centre I was going to made that connection when none of us could explain why my teeth were flaking off and landsliding out from one week to another. When they found out, one of them actually guessed, what treatments I’d been having the year before it was as if a light had been turned on. Then they did everything they could, even put a bridge in, gave good advice about fluoride and calcium and things would have gone much worse without them I’m sure. So I thanked the twerp for his opinion and sneering advice that I was of course free to seek a second opinion and slunk off. The receptionist insisted I take the complementary gift package which was a nasty little toothbrush with hard bristles, little tube of a brand of toothpaste I don’t use, some floss, mouth wash and other bits of junk in a gold bag. As I left I noticed that across the road was a nursing home, a student hostel complex and a large immigration detention centre. I couldn’t help but wonder if this had anything to do with the 5 month wait for an appointment.
I hardly had time to sink into despair when I remembered a letter a few months back from the Dental Hospital that I hadn’t bothered to read carefully because I assumed that I was now safe in the hands of the new Government Dental Scheme and there would be no more visits to the Dental Hospital to extract another hopeless case. On arriving home I looked again. Ye gods! I had reached the top of the list for a Course of Care and I had 1 day left to reply and say whether I wanted to take advantage or go back to the bottom of the list or be Struck Off even. I couldn’t dial fast enough. There had been a cancellation for the next day. Was 8:30am too early for me? Saved. I thought. Again. (hope never dies in the heart of the permanent adolescent.) And so I was, to some extent but nothing is simple. Next episodes: what gets done at Dental Hospital. What doesn’t. My SECOND attempt to use the New Govt Dent Scheme. Family histories and Why I am so Down on (most) Dentists. The tear wrenching beauty of the skulls of a four year old and six year old and other pictures.