It wasn’t long after Murray Bedel lost his arms in a farming accident in 1975 that he knew his teeth would become a major part of his life.
From dressing, to using the phone and later the computer, the now-retired farmer from Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask., has found his teeth integral in independently accomplishing everyday tasks.
As the years went on, his dentist warned him these tasks were wearing down the enamel on his teeth and they’d eventually fall out. That began to happen this past summer.
“It got me really thinking: what am I going to do? I was already starting to have issues with biting down,” he said.
“I knew I had to do something.”
Having done the research over the past two years, he and his wife Janet Bedel decided dental implants were a more durable and accessible option for him than dentures.
“I just feel that as a functioning adult, there should be an option for him out there that doesn’t involve another person living with him to help him [with his teeth],” Janet said.
“It’s my health. It’s something I need. I’m not looking to be pretty. I’m looking to be functional,” Murray said.
The couple said discussions with local dentists led to estimates around $60,000 for the work Murray needed (six implants on the top, three on the bottom). They had to start seeking out financial aid.
Murray said they reached out to their local MLA, who directed them through the provincial government health channels, but they still came up short.
“All the departments, I don’t think they knew what to say or do. They just said there was no program for me because I am self-employed,” he said, noting he has never been on a formal dental plan.
“We worked hard all our lives just to stay off welfare, but now it’s come to the crunch where we need to do these things and we need a little bit of help.”
The War Amps, a non-profit that provides financial assistance to Canadian amputees, eventually gave Murray $2,500 toward the implants.
From there, after a suggestion from someone else with a disability who had similar work done, Murray decided to go to a dental clinic in Mexico for roughly $20,000 less.
In an emailed statement to CBC News, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health said it couldn’t comment on a specific patient’s case. However, it noted that “dental implant coverage is provided when dental implants are recommended by a specialist in oral maxillofacial surgery due to tumours or congenital defects.”
Health Canada said in an emailed statement that “public health insurance doesn’t cover the cost of most dental services evenly across the country” and suggested each person check what they’re covered for under their province or territory’s public health authority or private health-care provider.
The Canada Revenue Agency also weighed in, suggesting people with disabilities or their supporting family members can apply for the Disability Tax Credit (DTC) to reduce the amount of income tax they have to pay both generally and on eligible medical expenses.
“While the DTC does not reimburse medical costs, by reducing the amount of income tax an individual may have to pay, it aims to offset some of the extra costs related to the impairment,” the CRA said in its emailed statement.
“If an individual paid for health-care expenses, they may be able to claim them as eligible medical expenses on their tax return.”
The CRA noted these expenses include some products, procedures and services, such as dental services paid to a medical practitioner or a dentist (including dentures and dental implants).
The Bedels argue this case should be qualified as an exceptional circumstance, allowing them to receive some kind of financial aid, similar to his prosthetics.
“It’s just like my arms. I need my arms. I’ve got to have them. It just could be another component of that,” he said.
“They are his enjoyment of life — his happiness, his being able to eat,” Janet said.
The Bedels said they had to pull from their retirement funds to pay for the dental work.
“I told my kids the other day that I was spending their inheritance and they said, ‘Well, that’s no problem. You look after yourself,” Murray said.
While the Bedels recognize they’re lucky to have savings to pull from, they said they worry about people who do not.
“There are a lot of people with disabilities who cannot earn a living and who would not be covered,” Janet said.
“This is a real and genuine problem.”
Not a unique situation, experts say
Dr. Olaf Plotzke — a retired pediatric dentist and co-founder of the Canadian Society for Disability and Oral Health (CSDH), a volunteer-based advocacy group made up of oral health-care providers and disability rights advocates — said Murray’s situation is common throughout the country.
“It’s very prevalent. It’s very common, very frustrating,” he said.
“Fixing teeth is health-care.… To have a workable [set of teeth] allows you to function properly, allows you to eat properly, which can prevent digestive problems. And it allows you to function socially — you have a smile.”
Dr. Derek Thiessen, the president of the College of Dental Surgeons of Saskatchewan, said the college is also “saddened” to learn of this situation.
“In the past, our provincial and federal governments have not considered oral health care an important part of overall health, and have left many individuals not covered by employer or personal insurance plans without access to proper care,” Thiessen said in an emailed statement.
“We are hopeful the proposed new Canadian dental-care plan being championed by the federal government will address this and many other issues in our province.”
The new insurance program is expected to be announced before the end of the year, though claims may not be accepted until 2024.
The spring federal budget promised $13 billion over the next five years to implement the national dental-care plan, which the federal government says will insure up to nine million people.
The government plans to begin with coverage for uninsured people under the age of 18, seniors and people with disabilities under a $90,000 annual family income threshold.
Plotzke said the CSDH is cautiously optimistic about how the federal government’s plan will help people with disabilities.
“What we need to make sure is by recognizing their limitations, we provide accommodations for them,” he said.
“People with disabilities do not want to be seen as something that’s broken, that needs to be fixed. It’s the environment around them that needs to be fixed so they can live in it, just like you and I.”