Hundreds of East Coast teenagers will now get dental check-ups after a school principal says she had to call out health authorities for alleged systemic discrimination of Māori students before getting any action.
District Health Board Hauora Tairāwhiti has long acknowledged the challenge of providing a dental service for adolescents on the East Coast, pointing to the difficulties of attracting permanent dental therapists and dentists to remote areas.
The new mobile dental clinic is a relief to Tolaga Bay Area School principal Nori Parata, who said it was about two years since many of her students were last seen by a dentist.
She was "absolutely delighted" to see the service start at her school on 14 April, but reaching this point had been a "drawn-out" process.
"It is disturbing when you think that they're entitled to this service, and it's taken this long to do," Parata said.
Hauora Tairāwhiti has contracted Gisborne practice Amber Dental to run the service.
The Amber Dental team will provide a mobile dental service to about 350 students in Years 9 to 13 across the five secondary schools on the East Coast.
Young people who are not at school and are under 18 are also able to access the service.
A dentist and dental therapists will provide on-site dental assessment, treatment and referral.
It follows Parata chasing up health authorities every year for 20 years to ensure her students received basic dental care, which is free for children until their 18th birthday.
Last year, Parata was asking for the service from March but was told in October that there was only time left in the school year to see Year 13 school leavers.
Students in Year 9 to 12 were seen only for pain relief.
She lodged a formal complaint with Hauora Tairāwhiti on 7 October outlining the "long term ineptitude" to deliver a quality dental service, calling it "systemic racism" because a large proportion, "if not 100 percent" of the students are Māori.
"I'm also saying it's discrimination because we are in a rural setting but we are entitled to these services that the government has mandated," she told Local Democracy Reporting at the time.
Hauora Tairāwhiti planning and funding manager Nicola Ehau said in a statement that providing an appropriate dental service on the coast had always been challenging.
"The way dental services are provided to adolescents in New Zealand does not work on the coast. It is difficult to attract permanent dental therapists and dentists to provide services in remote areas.
"We have listened to the community, worked with East Coast schools and the local dentists to come up with a mobile model. We are confident this will offer a long-term solution to this challenge."
Parata believed a front-page article in the Gisborne Herald in October, written by Local Democracy Reporting, had "a lot to do with" getting the service locked in.
"That's the worry, that the media exposure is what's driving the solution, as opposed to the oral hygiene of young people," she said.
"It shouldn't have to be this way. I shouldn't have to get in the paper and make allegations of systemic racism to the DHB to get it in place - especially when they've known about it for decades."
A Hauora Tairāwhiti spokesperson said the development of the service had taken place over 18 months - a process which began prior to the article being published.
Last year the Covid-19 restrictions meant a new venture was not possible, so the tender process was deferred until there was more certainty they could complete the process, she said.
A report to Hauora Tairāwhiti's board last month said it was finalising a three-year agreement with Amber Dental.
Hauora Tairāwhiti would not confirm whether the signed contract was for three years.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.