All New Zealanders should have access to a "comprehensive and affordable" dental service, the New Zealand Medical Association says.
The association, which represents doctors including GPs and specialists, has today joined calls for reform.
On Monday the Herald revealed Waitematā DHB wants a "comprehensive dental service for all New Zealanders", after concern about desperate Kiwis queuing at hospital pain clinics or showing up at ED.
Association chairwoman Dr Kate Baddock said dental decay "remains the most prevalent chronic, yet reversible, disease in New Zealand".
"While children have access to free dental care this is an issue for all age groups including older New Zealanders and cost is a major barrier.
"Māori and Pasifika have worse oral health outcomes as well as those living in areas of higher socioeconomic deprivation - this is an equity issue that must be addressed."
Baddock said bold action was needed to prevent dental problems, including fluoridation of drinking water, and cutting down on sugar in food and drink.
Concern about the state of New Zealanders' teeth was outlined in recently-published minutes from Auckland and Waitematā DHBs' community and public health advisory committee.
There are long queues at hospital pain clinics for temporary fillings or teeth extractions, the meeting noted, and people are turning up at emergency departments because of dental pain.
Waitematā DHB chief executive, Dr Dale Bramley, told the Herald the DHB "would support a comprehensive dental service for all New Zealanders and we will help to support the Ministry of Health in any deliberations they may have on this matter".
Any move to provide more subsidised or free dental care would carry a huge cost. Currently, about $198 million a year is spent on oral health services, with most covering universal services for children and teenagers.
Adults must pay the full cost, and bills can run into the thousands of dollars.
Kiwis without enough money live in chronic pain that affects work, quality of life, and mental and wider health. Gum disease increases the risk of heart disease, and poor oral health increases the chances of bacterial infection in the bloodstream.
About one in three New Zealanders have untreated tooth decay, the last comprehensive oral health survey in 2009 found. Almost half of adults had avoided routine dental treatment in the previous year, because of cost.
Health Minister David Clark has said there was "huge unmet need in dental care" - but there wouldn't be significant reform this side of the 2020 general election.
The cost of dental work
• Examination only: $76
• Single tooth extraction: $229
• Each addition tooth taken: $138
• Root filling: $735
• One surface filling: $153
• Composite crown: $408
• Hygienist - half-hourly rate: $110
• Full upper and lower dentures: $2557
Source: The average fee charged by NZ Dental Association members, according to the association's 2018 fee survey.