Since a gum infection necessitated the removal of all of her teeth in May 2011, Comox Valley resident Shirley Harrison, 70, has lost over a third of her body weight.
The 106-pound senior now lives off pureed food, canned soups and fruit, oatmeal and scrambled eggs because she cannot afford a new set of dentures. She learned the hard way that while the government will pay for the medically necessary removal of teeth, the cost of dentures to replace those teeth is the responsibility of the patient.
For Harrison and her husband George, 82, purchasing a new set of dentures is so far out of their financial capability that they must instead learn to adapt, but in the mean time, Harrison's health is failing, she has lost over 60 pounds and some days she is too tired to leave the house.
“One morning I got up so weak I could not walk,” said Harrison. “I went to the hospital and they said I was starving.”
Immediately following the operation to remove her teeth, Harrison and her husband scrimped and saved for a set of dentures, putting part of the $2,400 cost on a credit card when they couldn't come up with the cash. The dentures, however, were fitted when Harrison's gums were still swollen from surgery and as the swelling went down, the dentures got more and more loose until they began to fall out. They are now completely useless.
In desperation, the Harrisons have contacted every charity and government agency they can think of, but nobody is able or willing to help with the cost of another set.
“Almost all of them said they could get me anything but teeth,” said Harrison, “but teeth are what you need to eat.”
Teeth, it turns out, are not considered medically necessary and the government only covers dentures for people on income assistance. The Harrisons live off their old age pensions and as a couple their combined income is above the minimum threshold for receiving financial help. The only way the could qualify would be to live separately, a solution that is as financially impossible as paying for new teeth.
“Right now we are so broke we can barely afford the food we are eating – never mind $2,400 for teeth,” said Harrison.
Both wonder at what point teeth, and the ability to eat a wide range of food, become a medical necessity.
“If they are not necessary, well, look at the weight she has lost, just because she can't eat,” said George.
He in particular feels abandoned. A long-time supporter of children's charities, over the years he has donated more than $110,000 to local organizations. He raised the money through the collection of bottles and cans and has been recognized numerous times for his contributions. He said that the lack of help now that he and his wife are in need is a bitter pill to swallow.
“Now when we need help, everybody's looking out the window.”
They are appealing to the public for help towards the cost of new dentures and for donations of food, but ultimately the Harrisons would like to see the system changed so that the government covers at least part of the cost of dentures when teeth must be removed.
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