Carlton Clemons, 67, from Nashville, was in excruciating pain for months due to a rotting wisdom tooth. On a tight budget from Social Security and disability payments, dental care seemed out of reach. But all that changed when Tennessee took an ambitious step this year, investing about $75 million annually to extend dental care to over 650,000 Medicaid recipients aged 21 and up. "It felt like heaven when the pain ended," Clemons exclaimed post tooth extraction at Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry.
His story reflects a nationwide concern. Although Medicaid ensures dental coverage for kids, adults often fall through the cracks. Recognizing the financial and health implications of neglected dental health, six states have taken pivotal actions this year, expanding or launching Medicaid programs to cater to adults.
While it's a step in the right direction, challenges persist. In many states, dentist participation remains low, with bureaucratic processes slowing things down. Recent findings reveal preventable dental conditions contribute to a staggering 2.5% of ER visits, costing about $2 billion annually. Not to mention, the U.S. faces an annual productivity loss of $45 billion due to untreated dental issues.
Yet, there's hope on the horizon. States like Hawaii, Kentucky, and Michigan have jumped on the bandwagon, boosting their dental coverage this year. New Hampshire is allocating $33.4 million to cater to its 88,000 Medicaid beneficiaries.
Despite these proactive measures, gaps remain. Texas and Louisiana, among others, still only offer limited benefits. And as more states step up, many Medicaid recipients are being re-evaluated and potentially dropped from programs due to eligibility checks that had been paused during the pandemic.
For Danielle Wilkes, a mother of five from Ashland, the journey to find dental care took her 90 minutes away from Dr. Ryan O’Neill's office. After a car accident left her with multiple missing teeth, relief seemed out of reach due to towering dental costs. Now, with Tennessee's extended coverage, she's finally getting the care she needs, though she did have to foot a $400 bill that Medicaid didn't cover.
Dr. O’Neill, facing skyrocketing demand, highlights challenges such as the tedious Medicaid certification process for new dentists and confusing billing systems.
The nation is waking up to the intertwined relationship between oral and overall health. As states step up, many can only hope for more uniformity and fewer bureaucratic roadblocks in the future.
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