Natalie Pearn, a 39-year-old Mum from Sydney, went to 20 different dentists, asking for help after the public government dental office removed the front teeth, but did not replace them.
If she could not find – thanks to her own persistence – a dentist who would be willing to treat her for free last month, Mrs. Pearn believes she will still be waiting.
"They told me that I would have to wait until September this year," she said.
One of the front teeth of Mrs. Pearn was damaged in the case of seven years ago, but delayed the treatment after it was said that the cost of the root canal is 1000 USD.
Both the injured tooth and the one next to him, who died and had to be removed in a public dental hospital in August last year, which she could qualify only after months spent on Centrelink benefits.
Left with a clear gap in her smile, Mrs. Pearn tried to find a private clinic that would agree to the payment plan, but without regular work she was unable to get a loan.
She began to hunt for a new job to finance the treatment, but she said she was being mocked from interviews.
"They treat you like a drug addict because you do not have teeth," she said.
"They do not understand the circumstances, but the first impression is your smile."
Dentist Jalal Khan, who runs a mobile dental truck that visits distant communities, felt compelled to help Mrs Pearn when she appeared in his private practice.
While the dental bridge gave it just $ 170, the total cost of treatment would be around $ 1,400.
Dr Khan said that his work on the road "opened my eyes to the difficult situation of Australians looking for dental treatment", citing cases of older patients forced to use old prostheses – which should be replaced at least every seven years – for decades.
Dr Duckett from the Grattan Institute said most of the expenses for dental care came from the "pocket of patients."
"People who can not afford to pay do not receive dental care unless they go on long, often long-term waiting lists," he said.
The problem has had an expensive impact on the health care system, with evidence linking poor oral health with diabetes and heart disease – and with patients with acute, untreated dental problems ending up in hospital emergency departments.
The Australian Social Service Council has called for an additional $ 320 million a year for public dental care in the upcoming federal budget to work with states to double the number of adults treated in five years.
The ACOSS managing director, Cassandra Goldie, said that dental care was a "serious gap in our universal healthcare system", and "decent" treatment was increasingly restricted to people with high incomes.
The Coalition government is helping to fund state dental services through a national partnership agreement, with $ 242.5 million allocated over the 18 months to June 2019. And another $ 107.8 million committed in December to extend services by one year.
However, the number of patients that can be used remains relatively low, with an extension allowing 180,000 additional public patients, a fraction of those who have not been treated.
Dana is a reporter on health and industrial relations at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.