Original Published on Sep 02, 2022 at 16:58

By Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A Vancouver single father says he and his three First Nations sons faced discrimination at a non-profit dental clinic serving Vancouver’s  Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

Despite all three boys  having years of medical history at Strathcona Community Dental on Keefer  Street, Ajantha (Sam) Dharmapala says the receptionist refused their  First Nations status cards for coverage or to serve him unless he paid  in cash.

The receptionist did not seek help from  another staff member and said Dharmapala would not be able make  appointments for the boys unless he agreed to pay for them in cash, he  recalls.

“I tried to explain things to her very  kindly, but she very rudely told me not to come back to this place  without money,” said Dharmapala in an Aug. 24 Facebook post.

“It was horrible,” he said  in a Friday interview with The Tyee. “I don’t want anyone treated that  way. I don’t need that happening to another person.”

Dharmapala says operators  of the clinic have since apologized to him. An explanation by the clinic  posted online blames in part a computer error.

Dharmapala and his former partner, who was  status First Nations and a member of the Waywayseecappo First Nation in  Manitoba, share a 12-year-old son. After her recent sudden passing,  Dharmapala was asked to foster her two other sons, aged seven and three.  All three boys are status First Nations through their mother.

“I’m dealing with three kids who lost their mom, I’m trying to keep the younger two out of foster care,” said Dharmapala. 

“It’s not easy because I have to think  about their mental health,” he said. “I didn’t want them to have to  experience that kind of treatment.”

Status First Nations people who reside in  B.C. are entitled to many dental services free of charge through the  First Nations Health Authority and Pacific Blue Cross.

Indigenous people in Canada experience nearly twice  the rate of dental disease compared to non-Indigenous people, in part  because of limited access to dental care and nutritious foods, as well  as higher smoking rates. 

Poor dental health can result in heart disease and other serious health challenges throughout an individual’s life.

A 2020 report  into anti-Indigenous racism in health care also found that widespread  and insidious racism in all corners of B.C.’s health-care system deter  Indigenous people from seeking care, causing more health issues to go  untreated and resulting in more severe outcomes.

On its website, Strathcona Community Dental  Clinic acknowledges that “First Nations people who are status have up  to 100 per cent coverage on some procedures.”

But Dharmapala says he and his sons faced  treatment from the front desk receptionist at Strathcona Community  Dental that was inhumane and could completely deter someone else from  seeking dental care.

He took the three boys to the clinic on  Friday, Aug. 19. He chose that clinic because it was familiar and staff  knew their dental history. 

When he was three years old, the middle son  fell down and knocked out about five baby teeth. Now seven, the boy’s  adult molars had started to appear and Dharmapala wanted to make sure  they were growing properly. He brought the other boys along for checkups  at the same time.

The receptionist said they  could only take his middle son. And when she asked how Dharmapala would  pay, he explained that his son was covered under his status card and  Pacific Blue Cross. 

The receptionist ran the status card number  and said it wasn’t working. She asked Dharmapala to pay in cash, which  he said seemed odd given credit or debit are much easier. 

He then explained that the boys’ mother had  just died so he did not have all the details of their dental history  himself, but that they had come here for many years and their status  card had always worked. 

“She said, ‘That’s your problem,’” recalls Dharmapala. He could afford to pay, he said, but shouldn’t have to.

The family left and went to Cambie Village  Dental, where Dharmapala says they accepted the boys’ status cards  without issue and gave them excellent care. He even called the First  Nations Health Authority, which confirmed their cards were active and  conferred dental coverage.

On Wednesday, Dharmapala said another  staffer at the clinic reached out to apologize, but did not say what  accountability or steps would be taken with the receptionist.

In a response to a one-star Google review  of the clinic Dharmapala posted on Aug. 26, the clinic said it takes  these complaints seriously.

“We always accept Native Health and are up  to date about insurance’s changes. Having said that, we are limited by  what the computer system tells us when we verify coverage,” read the  reply, posted late Thursday evening.  

“The people running the place need to fix  it,” said Dharmapala. “They have to know about the workers and make sure  they’re being thoughtful. But that receptionist is not good for that  job and dealing with low-income, vulnerable people.”

Strathcona Community Dental Clinic is a  non-profit providing reduced-cost dental care to low-income and  marginalized people, many of whom are Indigenous.

In an emailed statement to The Tyee, clinic  executive director Erin Riddell declined to comment further on the  specific allegations or any actions that have been taken with the staff  member in question, citing privacy concerns. 

She said issues confirming status First  Nations health coverage are not common, and that clinic staff have taken  part in cultural sensitivity training through the BC Dental  Association.

Asking a patient to contact the ministry to  confirm coverage or pay out of pocket and claim back those costs is  standard practice if there is confusion around coverage, Riddell said.  She did not respond to a question about why cash payment would be  insisted upon.

“Unfortunately, we cannot take the risk of  giving out free service as we do not have the means to recoup these  funds,” she wrote. “As a not-for-profit dental clinic, we rely on  government grants and donations for our clinic to keep operating and  stay open.”

Dharmapala said no assistance with a claim  was offered. The only solution offered by the receptionist was to demand  he pay for the services in cash. 

Dharmapala has experience speaking up for  others as a housing and anti-poverty advocate in the Downtown Eastside,  which helped him navigate the situation at the clinic.

But he says his heart breaks for his grieving sons and other vulnerable and Indigenous people who may face similar behavior. 

“The history of Canada’s treatment of  Indigenous people is dark. It is still in society,” said Dharmapala.  “How do these little kids have to face this, especially First Nations  kids? Kids can get very mad and deal with this poorly. It is sad.”

“And I really want to give them a good future.”

This item reprinted with permission from   The Tyee   Vancouver, British Columbia
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