From the depths of the Great Recession to now, the increase in dental services for low-income and uninsured people is enough to prompt a smile.
The Washington Legislature slashed Medicaid coverage during the budget cuts of 2009 and 2011. More than 100,000 adults lost dental coverage, causing a spike in visits to hospital emergency rooms, which have no dentists.
At the ER, patients would get pain relief and prescriptions, but the root cause of the discomfort would go untreated. Patients were told to see dentists but couldn’t get appointments or couldn’t afford them, which led to return ER visits.
This still occurs, but not as much, because Medicaid coverage for adults was restored once the economy rebounded. Plus, the Affordable Care Act increased the number of people getting basic dental coverage under Medicaid.
But many people are still uninsured and some dentists don’t accept Medicaid patients. That’s why a program like DENT (Dental Emergencies Needing Treatment) is so important.
The program – a collaboration of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital, Washington Dental Service Foundation and Better Health Together, a subsidiary of Empire Health Foundation – connects sufferers to long-term relief.
Dental emergencies are one of the top reasons the homeless and uninsured people visit ERs, but giving them temporary relief and a referral to a dentist isn’t enough.
DENT volunteers provide that vital connection between patients and dentists. But first the program had to find dentists willing to participate.
Washington’s reimbursement rate for dental services is among the lowest in the nation, at a mere 29 percent of what the average private insurance policy will cover. Plus, Medicaid patients are more apt to miss appointments without notice.
To overcome these hurdles, DENT forged relationships with dentists and started before-and-after services that have built trust.
The program offers counseling on what to expect at a dental office and checks to see whether patients have transportation. If needed, volunteers will travel to appointments with skittish patients. If patients must cancel their appointments, they’re urged to give 24-hour notice.
DENT follows up with dentists to get their feedback.
As a result, more than 60 dentists have participated, leading to more than 3,100 dental appointments since the program’s inception in 2014. Many of the referrals are coming from ERs and urgent care clinics. Community health clinics are performing root canals and other procedures at discounted rates.
Next year, Providence will have data on how much is being saved on emergency room visits.
The good news is that patients are getting the proper care in the proper setting, and, perhaps, leaving with a grin.
To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”
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