Local View: State can restore dental care for low-income

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Over the past few years many individuals and organizations in Clark County have collaborated to tackle a serious, often overlooked health problem in our community: a lack of dental care for low-income adults.

The hard work of local leaders, combined with generous grants from Washington Dental Service Foundation and others, led to the opening of the nonprofit New Day Community Dental Clinic in 2011. The clinic's mission is to provide discounted dental care to families in need. The good news is that New Day is providing much-needed dental care to thousands of local residents. The bad news is that too many are still falling through the cracks because they can't afford even low-cost fees for dental services.

The reality is that no community can totally address the dental problems of those in need. The state must also do its share to help. Washington legislators this year should restore Medicaid coverage for low-income adults to ensure that everyone can receive the dental care they need to be healthy and employable.

To help balance the state budget in 2011, the Legislature eliminated dental coverage for Medicaid-eligible adults. More than 450,000 people lost coverage. Now that the economy is improving, funding needs to be restored, and quickly. Thousands of people statewide are being harmed by untreated dental disease that gets more difficult and expensive to treat with each passing day.

By acting now, the state can take advantage of the federal funds available through Medicaid expansion. The expansion of Medicaid as part of national health care reform will save the state more than $225 million annually because the federal government will now fund existing state health care programs for low-income people. The Legislature can use part of these savings to restore dental coverage to Medicaid-eligible adults.

Added bonus

There is an added bonus to take action this legislative session. If the state restores Medicaid coverage for the existing population, the federal government will cover the full costs of dental care for the expansion population. All together, a state investment of just over $15 million per year will provide dental coverage for more than 700,000 people and pay huge dividends in financial savings and better health. This is an opportunity too good to pass up.

Oral disease is especially problematic for people with diabetes. An estimated 60,000 Medicaid-insured people in our state have diabetes. Research shows that providing dental treatment can reduce the cost of care for each patient by more than $3,200 a year, including reducing hospitalizations by 61 percent in the first year. If 25 percent of the Medicaid patients with diabetes receive dental care and this care resulted in just half the savings cited in the research, $24 million in medical costs would be saved.

Dental disease is also linked to heart disease, stroke and pneumonia — serious health issues that are expensive to treat.

Dental problems are the No. 1 reason why uninsured patients visit emergency rooms. But the "dental care" in ERs is largely confined to pain relief and sometimes dealing with an infection. The underlying dental problem is left untreated, so many patients return again and again.

Restoring dental coverage will ensure that patients with dental problems get care in the most appropriate and cost-effective setting. They need care in a dentist chair, not in the more expensive ER.

Legislators should seize the opportunity to provide dental coverage to low-income adults. Helping people stay healthy so they can be independent and productive truly is the right thing to do.

Dr. R.J. Eussen of Vancouver is a pediatric dentist and a board member of Washington Dental Service Foundation. Sharif Burdzik is a vice president at Riverview Community Bank and board chair for New Day Community Dental Clinic.