A critical shortage of workers is jeopardizing children’s dental services in the territory, warns Yukon Employee’s Union president Laurie Butterworth.
And it’s the government’s fault, he said.
“Inadequate staffing levels are the direct result of the Yukon government’s failure to take the necessary steps to recruit and retain staff,” he said in a statement.
“The problem is so severe that some services will have to be reduced or cut entirely.”
Under the Yukon Children’s Dental Program, students from Kindergarten to Grade 8 in Whitehorse and up to Grade 12 in the communities are eligible for subsidized dental services.
For years, dental therapists have been hired by the government to travel to schools, and provide children with dental exams, X-rays, teeth cleaning and other oral hygiene assistance.
Also offered, if needed, is restorative work, such as fillings, crowns and extractions.
There are currently more than 2,400 students enrolled in the program.
But only four of 10 dental therapist positions are filled, said Butterworth.
And the work is starting to back up, he said.
“There are simply not enough staff members to complete this work,” said Butterworth’s release.
“In fact, therapists have been told not to provide any restorative treatment.”
The only dental care available to kids could eventually only be in Whitehorse, it said.
“Well that’s OK if you live here, but what happens when you live in Destruction Bay?” said Butterworth on Thursday.
“You don’t even have the ability to have a dental check-up for these kids.”
The reason for the shortage is that workers in similar positions in other parts of the country receive substantially higher wages, said Butterworth.
An average starting salary for a dental therapist in the Yukon is $56,000.
But Alberta offers therapists up to $10,000 more. Nunavut offers $16,000 more.
Two Yukoners with therapist diplomas recently accepted jobs outside the territory, said Butterworth.
And another therapist is leaving soon, bringing the total number down to three in the territory, he said.
At a press conference Thursday morning, Health and Social Services Minister Brad Cathers said there were, in fact, only eight dental therapist positions in the Yukon and that only one of those positions was vacant.
There are two therapists who are not at work for personal reasons, he said.
“We’re making our best efforts to adjust schedules and the program to accommodate for those absences until they are able to return to their positions and perform the work.”
The situation was not unusual, he said.
“At the moment there’s a little bit of a not uncommon operational bump.
“It’s been commonly the case in the Yukon for decades that, due to our small size and the small numbers of people that we have, if we have a vacancy, and then a couple of individuals are not at work, that can create operational difficulties in the program.”
The government is doing its best to recruit new dental therapists, said Cathers.
“The appropriate steps are being taken right now to do everything we can to fix the problem so we can get the program up and running as quickly as possible at normal levels.
“This is all in a day’s work for the department of Health and Social Services.”
Dental therapists must complete a two-year dental therapy diploma program at the National School of Dental Therapy in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
That is the only university in Canada, which gives out this type of diploma.
It only graduates seven to 15 students a year.
The union wants to discuss the shortage of therapists in the territory with the government as soon as possible, said Butterworth.
“We should sit down and start talking to these people because I see there is a problem in hiring,” he said.
“If we were to talk about some kind of retention bonus, we could facilitate that fairly easily because we do have nurses here that get a retention allowance in the Yukon.”
During the last school year, dental therapists performed 2,400 fluoride treatments, 3,800 sealants, and 1,700 fillings, according to the department of Health and Social Services.