RAMAHYUCK Gippsland Dental Clinic had intended to fill the gap in First Nations’ access to permanent health services, but its closure will leave a gaping hole in the region.

Established in 2009 with a $1 million investment from the Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation, the Gippsland Dental Clinic was an extension of the corporation’s existing services. This expansion was part of the late Noel Yarram Senior’s vision to establish more permanent services with a focus on priority care for the region’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

It will close its doors on June 26 and is only seeing existing patients within reduced hours until then. This was announced via an advertisement on Page 4 of the Gippsland Times’ Tuesday, May 14, 2024 issue.

The Gippsland Times believes that financial reasons have led to the closure of the Gippsland Dental Clinic. However, when asked to confirm this, the Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation declined to comment.

The clinic operates privately and is primarily self-funded through dental fees.

The clinic was set up with up to three dental chairs. According to Ramahyuck’s Annual Report 2022-23 – its last fully operational year, 1737 dental patients were seen, and will now be seeking care elsewhere.

Nancy Binotto, chief executive of Ramahyuck, provided a statement in the 2022-23 report.

It said: “Despite the continued challenges faced due to workforce capacity and unprecedented economic factors, Ramahyuck’s financial position remains strong due to sound financial management. Financial sustainability is at the forefront of decision-making as we navigate the uncertain economic times ahead.”

Uncertain times are ahead for the clinic’s patients because with the Gippsland Dental Clinic gone, the only service provider of specialised dental care within Gippsland for First Nations people becomes the Gippsland and East Gippsland Aboriginal Co-Operative Ltd (GEGAC) Dental Clinic.

GEGAC said in a statement: “The closure of Ramahyuck’s dental service will mean there is no longer a specialist Aboriginal dental service between GEGAC, here in Bairnsdale, and Melbourne.”

GEGAC provides Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people free dental services, including cleaning and exams, fitting mouth guards and dentures, and addressing root canals, fillings and extractions.

“We anticipate this will increase pressure on GEGAC’s dental service, and that means waiting times may increase,” GEGAC said.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reported that in 2022, 19 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians did not visit a dentist for reasons such as long waiting times, inconvenient appointment slots, and high costs.

As remoteness increases, the AIHW say oral health generally declines. Fewer dental practitioners available coupled with longer travel times and limited transport options makes receiving dental care difficult.

That same year, 30 per cent of people in the Wellington Shire (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) said they did not go to the dentist due to cost.

“Dental services provided by and for Aboriginal community are an important part of the overall health and wellbeing of First Nations People,” GEGAC said.

“GEGAC will continue to work closely with our partners in the region to ensure Aboriginal people have access to high quality medical and dental care.”