All Smiles, Donelle Collier from Kaleen with her new dentures. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
ACT Health has apologised for leaving a woman without teeth for 17 months after an administrative error kept her off the denture waiting list.
Donelle Collier had all her teeth extracted on August 21, 2012, after they started to rot as a side effect of her medications.
The 49-year-old made two calls to the department to check when she would get new teeth and two different staff members said they checked the waiting list and assured her she was moving up the queue. But she rang Health Minister Katy Gallagher's office in November 2013 and staff told her there had been a mistake and she was never put on the list.
''We want to sincerely apologise. It was an administrative oversight between two parts of our service … This led to incorrect information being provided to the client,'' an ACT Health spokeswoman said.
The average wait time for dentures in the ACT is eight months and talking about the period she spent without teeth makes Ms Collier cry.
''When people talk to me now I don't have a washer covering my mouth, or look down at the ground because I didn't want people to see that I was so hideous. I hated smiling and I didn't even want my grandchildren to look at me because they looked at me differently,'' Ms Collier said.
''When I got [my teeth] out my confidence went down hill. It was hard to eat. I could only have soft food.''
Her nutrition suffered and led to complications with her medical conditions. ''I've been a Warfarin taker for life - I've had blood clots in my lungs and my doctor he was worried about me because I got depression, I couldn't sleep and didn't want to go outside. He said I shouldn't be eating what I was eating.''
On Wednesday she received her dentures and is dreaming of biting into her first red delicious apple after 17 months of mashed vegetables, Weet-Bix, the white part of chicken and yoghurt.
Ms Collier said she would still be getting the run-around from ACT Health if she had not taken her complaint straight to the Chief Minister. ''I would have been waiting forever … it's unacceptable, they shouldn't lie to people.''
Ms Collier said she was speaking out because she was worried more people had been left off the waiting list but ACT Health said the problem had been fixed.
''The dental program has also reviewed its current administrative processes to ensure this does not happen again. We will remind all staff to follow up correspondence and ensure referral information is being sent to the appropriate departments. Doctors are now conducting monthly audits of clinics to ensure patient and appointment information is actioned appropriately.''
But even after the administrative error was fixed and Ms Collier got the paperwork for her dentures, she faced another hurdle.
She had to make a $222 co-payment.
''Being on a disability pension that's a lot of money. I went without food to live on for a fortnight to pay that.''
ACT Dental Prosthetists Association president Terry McHugh said he had seen two patients including Ms Collier in the past month who had waited more than a year for dentures.
While funding for the ACT Dental Health program has increased with federal funding, the costs incurred by The Canberra Hospital fell from $9.9 million in 2011-12 to $9.2 million in 2012-13. Mr McHugh said in the past Canberra dental labs were doing work for ACT Health but this has now slowed.
''We have 12 members who are contracted to ACT Health to see their patients. Yet we only see a trickle,'' Mr McHugh said. As The Canberra Times reported last week, wait times to see a public dentist in Canberra have fallen but patients are still waiting an average of more than seven months for denture fittings and four months for general treatment.
ACT Health figures show waiting times have improved markedly and are well down on the one-year wait for general treatment and 18-month interval patients faced for denture fittings in 2012, but consumer groups warned it was not good enough.