A woman whose teeth were punched out by her abusive boyfriend has to live in excruciating pain because she can’t afford the dental care to repair them.
Ellie, who didn’t want her real name used out of fear, is regularly hospitalised with oral infections which make it difficult for her to hold down a job. She has been told it will cost her at least $25,000 to repair her teeth.
The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists says it is common for people to put off dental care because of the cost, and called on the Government to make it free for all.
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Ellie, 31, met her boyfriend in Auckland when she was a university student.
“There wasn’t any abuse until I moved in, then he started being controlling. He used to punch at my head when he got angry, and it led to teeth being broken a lot,” she said.
“He said nobody else would want me with my teeth the way they are.”
Ellie moved out of her boyfriend’s home when she found out she was pregnant.
She’s now trying to raise her child on her own, but her teeth remain damaged from the injuries she sustained in the relationship.
“All my teeth are broken but the roots are still there. The pain from the nerves is so excruciating. I don’t sleep much any more because I am always in pain. I have so many dental abscesses at the moment,” she said.
“I desperately want to work, but it is difficult when I’m always sick from my teeth and in and out of hospital almost monthly.”
Stuff has spoken to a dentist who said Ellie’s upper and lower anterior teeth appear to be broken close to the gumline, and it would be very believable that this occurred as a result of trauma.
“I have to take antibiotics at least once a month, but it never gets rid of the infection, it just makes it not as bad,” Ellie said.
Ellie has seen a dentist who put the cost of fixing her teeth at between $25,000 and $35,000, which she can’t afford.
“I just want them fixed, so I can move on with my life and not be reminded all the time,” she said.
“I lost my job last year because I spent so many days in hospital. I had to go home sick a bunch of times from the pain and from the constant infections.
“I’m frustrated. I always had really nice teeth. “
Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Sarah Dalton said research showed that 72% of New Zealanders have put off dental care because of cost.
“On top of chronic pain, infection and wider health complications, dental problems can impact on people’s psychological wellbeing and their personal confidence,” she said.
“So there is a mental health component. I just think we can do better as a country.”
Dalton said the association was calling on the Government to bring universal dental care into the public healthcare system to make it free for everyone.
“For some reason, we treat oral health differently to the health of the rest of our bodies. It’s an outlier where almost all provision for adults is provided by the private sector,” she said.
“It’s different for children and young people. We’d like to see those benefits extended.”
Dalton said a public survey found 74% agreed the Government should fund adult access to dental care as it does for children.
“We’re agreed that’s the direction we want to head. It would be a significant investment. But poor oral health leads to other health complications and significant treatment costs that could have been avoided with earlier intervention,” she said.
“Those complications also add to the pressure on our public hospitals. Treasury cost benefit analysis found the Government will get a return of $1.60 on every dollar spent and society will get a $4.50 return overall. That looks like a good investment.”
The situation has left Ellie depressed, and she said she spends every night crying.
“I had perfect health and never had struggles with my mental health until my teeth were all broken. Now I have severe depression, anxiety and all kinds of health problems.
“Some nights I’m in so much pain I have to scream into my pillow. There hasn’t been a single day and night where I haven’t had tooth pain since this all happened a few years ago.
“I wish there were more resources available to help me and I wish dental care was free here. I’ve had to spend so much money on appointments to get antibiotics and I can’t afford it.”
Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said she doesn’t support free dental care for adults and, at this stage, fluoridation and accessibility for vulnerable groups remains the focus.
“Fluoridation can halve the need for dental care which is why the Government continues to roll out fluoridation in local water supplies,” she said.
“As a result of funding made available in Budget 2022, there has been a significant increase in the accessibility of dental care for the most vulnerable New Zealanders.”
Ellie said her dentist advised her that because the incident happened overseas and some time had passed since it occurred, it was unlikely ACC would cover the cost and, if it did, she would still have to pay most of it.
But deputy chief executive for service delivery at ACC, Amanda Malu, said ACC assesses every claim on a case-by-case basis, and can accept claims for injuries that happened overseas.
“If you’re a New Zealand resident and you return home with an injury that happened while you were overseas, you may be eligible for ACC cover,” she said.
“This includes if you’ve been travelling for business, a holiday, or visiting friends or family. Eligibility for overseas accidents can be complex, and we encourage the woman to contact us to discuss her case.”