Maryborough's dental waiting times have blown out to almost 42 months, prompting an oral health group to call for federal reform to stop problems spiraling out of control across regional Australia.
The times for routine dental care were revealed by the Victorian Oral Health Alliance after they lodged freedom of information requests with health departments.
The waiting times are Victoria's longest and the VOHA has cited them in a wider argument to parliament's Inquiry into Regional Australia that urgent action is needed to deal with worsening dental health problems outside metropolitan cities.
Group spokesperson Tony McBride said many people in regional areas are effectively waiting entire parliamentary terms for general dental care.
"It's ridiculous that people are waiting this long for dental care," he said.
Apart from bringing discomfort, poor oral health affects people in all kinds of subtle and indirect ways, Mr McBride said.
Health services are increasingly concerned that they are not picking up cancers early enough in many rural and regional parts of the state, he said.
"After two or three years on a waiting list these problems become even more chronic and difficult to deal with, like gum disease, which can link in with diabetes and heart conditions for a slice of people.
"So it's not just that people have been uncomfortable. It ties in with more significant health conditions."
Poor oral health can also reverberate throughout people's daily and professional lives. For example, it can make a difference during job interviews or stop people wanting to catch up with friends, Mr McBride said.
Federal parliament must take action: advocate
The states are responsible for most public dental care funding but Mr McBride said the federal parliament could make changes to two of its funds to help ease problems in rural and regional areas.
VOHA has recommended the parliament review its share of the state and federal funding split, with a view to providing more.
Mr McBride said the government should also spend more through the Child Dental Benefits Scheme, which two thirds of Australian children are eligible for, even if not enough parents know about it.
"It's not promoted enough. If I wasn't in the system I wouldn't know about it. I think parents get one letter at a particular point in time," he said.
"They can get up to $1000 of care at any dentist, public or private, over a two year period. That is enough for most kids, though those with serious conditions $1000 is nowhere near enough."
However, many parents instead fork out their own money, which can be a significant impost for low income earners, Mr McBride said.
He said federal funding might only makes up somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of total government spends on dental. The state government funds more.
Victoria says it is addressing the problem
A Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said Victoria's government is delivering free dental in schools "to ensure kids can get the dental care they need, families can save on time and money, and more public dental appointments are freed-up for adults."
It spent $315 million on public dental services last financial year, including $65.2 million for the School Dental Program
A provider in the area had faced difficulty finding staff in recent times, which oral health group Dental Health Services Victoria was helping address.
A La Trobe University oral health expert last year told the Bendigo Advertiser that people in smaller towns often had problems getting to dentists, unlike in cities the size of Bendigo.
Professor Mark Gussy said the problem was often compounded by longer travel times and the challenges of losing work hours and finding childcare.
"The income of people living in those areas is much lower than it would be in metropolitan Melbourne, so the burden of the cost of a visit is much greater," he said.
Both the government and Mr McBride said general dental wait times had been significantly impacted by COVID-19 because of restrictions on routine treatment.
Between June 2019 and June 2020, general dental wait times lengthened by nearly six months to 42 in Maryborough.
"However, urgent and emergency care was still provided during the restrictions," the government spokesperson said.
"In Victoria, anyone needing urgent dental care and those in priority groups - such as children, pregnant women, refugees and asylum seekers and Aboriginal Victorians - are not placed on a waiting list.
"They are given the first available appointment."
Mr McBride said the risk was that people's conditions could worsen the longer they languished on the general waiting list for routine care across regional Victoria.
"The other dynamic that we see is that people wait so long and their conditions get so bad that it actually turns into an urgent case," he said.
"Therefore, they come in and get seen as an emergency and they get seen right away. They take up an appointment that would otherwise have gone to someone on the general waiting list.
"People are not doing any of this deliberately. They can't wait any longer because they are in pain. So it becomes a vicious cycle in which services spend more time on urgent care."