Government denies funds to Watson Lake dental clinic

Watson Lake has a new dental clinic. That's despite inflexibility on the part of the Yukon government, says the clinic's manager. Darrin Sinclair manages the Alder Brook and Riverstone clinics in Whitehorse.

Watson Lake has a new dental clinic. That’s despite inflexibility on the part of the Yukon government, says the clinic’s manager.

Darrin Sinclair manages the Alder Brook and Riverstone clinics in Whitehorse, and now the Signpost Dental Clinic on Adela Trail in Watson Lake.

He asked the government if it could divert some of the money it spends on flying in dentists from Outside to help him pay his rent. He was denied.

“I guess I went into it a little naive, thinking, ‘Hey, this is a no-brainer,’” said Sinclair. “We can all help each other. I’ll save the government money, I’ll provide better service for the community, create some jobs, help the town.”

Providing adult dental services is not part of the Yukon government’s mandate, said Pat Living, spokesperson for Health and Social Services.

But it does recognize that many of Yukon’s communities are under-served, and for that reason it pays for travel, accommodation and per diem expenses for dentists to come to the communities about twice a year. The cost of actual dental services must be paid by the patient or their insurer.

Health and Social Services offered Sinclair that same deal and he turned it down, said Living.

The government would prefer to use local dentists, but at this time there aren’t any who are interested in the contracts, she said.

Last year, it cost “well below $20,000” to provide this service for Watson Lake, Living wrote in an email.

Sinclair asked for $10,000 to help cover his rent, he said.

The money would allow him to keep a dental clinic open at least four days a week, said Sinclair.

For now, the government’s unwillingness to help has not interfered with the clinic’s ability to operate. It opened in late July.

“If the town could support a dentist in a traditional dental clinic, it would have already,” said Sinclair. “So we’re just trying something different. When I look at my numbers, it’s pretty, pretty tight, whether this can work financially or not.”

The clinic has a dental therapist and an assistant on staff.

A dental therapist has a more limited scope of practice than a dentist. The profession is comparable to a nurse practitioner in the medical field, said Sinclair.

She can do emergency exams, cleanings, fillings and simple extractions.

She can do full mouth exams if the patient has been seen by a dentist in the past two years.

If someone in Watson Lake has tooth pain, they can see the dental therapist in town and get a diagnosis and avoid a trip to Whitehorse.

Before the clinic opened, someone with a dental issue would have to come to Whitehorse just to get checked out, said Sinclair. If it turned out to be something major, requiring for example a root canal, they would have to either stay in town several days to wait for another appointment or return home, only to have to come back to Whitehorse a second time.

Sinclair also plans to send a dentist to Watson Lake about once a month, especially to help residents catch up on their dental exams, he said.

The X-ray machine at the Watson Lake clinic is fully digital, and the dental therapist has the ability to consult with dentists in Whitehorse on any diagnoses and treatments.

Having a clinic open is a great thing for the town, said Cheryl O’Brien, the president of the Watson Lake Chamber of Commerce.

“We are able to potentially entice people to move to our community because they do have dental services available now. We never used to. So that is a big benefit to our community. It’s always difficult to get to Whitehorse to get to the dentist to get things done.”

In addition to creating two jobs in the town, the clinic should have spillover benefits for other local businesses, said O’Brien.

When people travel to Whitehorse for a dentist appointment, they will typically also do their shopping, get a haircut, or do other things to maximize their trip, she said.

When people stay in the community for dental services, that other money that they would have spent will stay as well.

O’Brien, who has lived in the community for 10 years, wasn’t aware that the government sent a dentist in twice a year, she said.

“A lot of the people I have talked to were not aware that that happened. I am just not quite sure where the communication went on that. Most people were like, ‘Well, we don’t get a dentist.’”

As president of the chamber of commerce, O’Brien said she could not comment on whether or not the Yukon government should have funded the dental clinic.

But in general, the government should be encouraging local business development over flying people in from Outside, she said.

The community has been very supportive of the new clinic, helping out where they can, said Sinclair.

“They just honestly care about making the town a better place.”

And Patti McLeod, MLA for Watson Lake, also went to bat for the clinic, he said.

“She went up against a brick wall, too, and she didn’t understand why this was such a problem. She’s within the Yukon Party.”

That party talks about supporting job creation and private enterprise, so Sinclair thought, “This will be a slam dunk,” he said.

McLeod could not be reached for comment by press time.

Sinclair, who lives in Whitehorse, called Watson Lake the “hidden gem of the Yukon.”

“It seemed to have a bad rap. Before, I didn’t do anything to look into why that was, I just assumed that it lived up to its reputation. But man, it has a ski hill that functions, for God’s sake.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at