KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

States Struggle With Poor Dental Care

Reports show that California and Wisconsin have poor dental care, while various communities try to improve lagging dental care indicators.

The New York Times reports: "It is not unusual in California for children to suffer crippling pain and disability from untreated tooth decay. By the age of 5, 28 percent of the state's children have untreated dental decay, according to the most recent statewide figures. In 2007, the last year that data for many reports was available, more than 500,000 California children between the ages of 5 and 17 missed at least one day of school in a year because of dental problems, costing school districts $29.7 million dollars in lost revenue." Dental health among California children ranks "third from the bottom in the National Survey of Children's Health." Only Arizona and Texas come in lower. "In the Bay Area, children and teenagers up to the age of 17 made nearly 1,980 visits to emergency rooms for preventable dental conditions in 2007. The cost of these visits averaged $172, but if a problem required hospitalization it cost an average of $5,000" (Udesky, 5/21).

Napa Valley Register: In a free dental clinic in California, Dentist Adrian Fenderson "opens his office and heart to Napa's less fortunate once a year for a free emergency dental health care clinic. This is the second year he has offered the free dental health care. He and two other dentists offer their time free of charge for this clinic that started one year ago. Fenderson estimates it cost him between $8,000 and $10,000 to offer the free dental care. Fenderson sent out about 5,000 e-mails and posted flyers at various locations throughout Napa. 'I do it because I enjoy it and there is a need - especially in these tough economic times,' said Fenderson, who has practiced dentistry in Napa for 38 years" (Trevelen, 5/23).

Wisconsin State Journal: "Dental care can be difficult to find in rural parts of Wisconsin and throughout the country - especially for people on Medicaid, the state-federal health plan for the poor, and those with no insurance. Nine of 10 dentists in the state accept few or no Medicaid patients." They say lower Medicaid reimbursement is the primary reason. And, because rural areas have fewer dentists, the squeeze is even more acute in small towns. "That, combined with low fluoride levels in many rural drinking water supplies, means more tooth loss and untreated decay for many rural residents, state health officials say. … A network of federally funded dental clinics has emerged around the state to serve Medicaid patients and the uninsured, but many of the clinics have been overwhelmed by demand. … Wisconsin, which ranks high in national studies of health care quality, gets poor marks in access to dental care" (Wahlberg, 5/23). 

KDRV / (Medford, Ore.) ABC Channel 12: "Toothaches are one of the most common reasons people without health insurance visit the emergency room. More than 2,000 patients came to the Rogue Valley Medical Center in Medford or Three Rivers Hospital in Grants Pass with a dental complaint within the last year. Dentists say most dental emergencies are because of severe tooth pain that's caused by tooth decay or infection. Dentists say this typically happens because people do not brush or floss, eat poorly, and do not get regular dental checkups. While dentists say a lack of insurance is a barrier for patients receiving care, they say good hygiene can go a long way" (Sienicki, 5/20).

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