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New Funding Seeks to Help Clinics Swamped by Demand For Dental Care

By Kaiser Health News  
   July 20, 2016

Visits to private dental offices fell by 9% from 2006 to 2012, but adults have been seeking more care at health centers and emergency departments, where dental appointments have increased 74% and 20% respectively.

This article first appeared July 20, 2016 on the Kaiser Health News website.

By Zhai Yun Tan

Shane Peebles has a ticking time bomb in his mouth.

He has multiple cavities, including one that has been infected and formed a pocket of painful pus. He also has a disease that causes swollen, bleeding gums, making it painful to chew.

He finally visited a health clinic two months ago when the pain became unbearable — and learned that it would cost $300 for surgery to treat the infection.

But Peebles is homeless and he cannot afford that. He got a free checkup, cleanings and antibiotics to reduce the swelling in his face and jaw from the Venice Family Clinic, a health center in Los Angeles that serves more than 22,000 low-income, uninsured and homeless individuals. Last year, the clinic had more than 5,000 dental visits, overseen by two full-time dentists and one volunteer. They offer procedures like tooth examinations, cleanings, fillings, extractions and basic gum treatment — but not the surgery that Peebles needs.

Last month, the Department of Health & Human Services awarded $156 million to 420 health centers around the country — including the Venice Family Clinic — to help address an overwhelming demand for affordable dental coverage. According to the department, 108 million Americans have no dental insurance and access to care can be difficult even for those who are covered.

"It's the first time the grants are targeting oral health services," said Martin Kramer, head of the communications office at the Health Resources and Services Administration, a part of HHS.

Dental care has become a luxury item for many middle- and low-income families, especially for adults. Cost is the primary barrier. Twenty percent of low-income adults say their mouth and teeth are in poor condition, according to the American Dental Association.

While dental benefits are guaranteed for lower income children under Medicaid and CHIP, dental coverage for adults in Medicaid is not compulsory and varies from state to state.

But even if Medicaid offers coverage, many patients have trouble getting appointments because often dentists say reimbursement rates are too low.

For these people, health centers are the go-to for dental care. Yet health centers, which generally rely heavily on federal funding, say they have trouble supporting the level of dental services needed by patients.

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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