More dental patients using ERs, showing lack of dental coverage, shortage of dentists and the stepchild status of oral health

More patients are going to hospital emergency rooms for dental care, illustrating how oral health remains the stepchild of the health system despite health-care reform.

“An analysis of the most recent federal data by the American Dental Association shows dental ER visits doubled from 1.1 million in 2000 to 2.2 million in 2012, or one visit every 15 seconds, Laura Ungar reports for The Courier-Journal and USA Today.

Christopher Smith of Jeffersonville, Ind., had a dental
infection that put him in a Louisville hospital for a
week. (Courier-Journal photo by Sam Upshaw Jr.)

“This is something I deal with daily,” Dr. George Kushner, director of the oral and maxillofacial surgery program at the University of Louisville, told Ungar. “People still die from their teeth in the U.S.”

A longstanding federal law requires ERs to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay. “Although they often provide little more than painkillers and antibiotics to dental patients, the visits cost more than three times as much as a routine dental visit, averaging $749 if the patient isn’t hospitalized — and costing the U.S. health care system $1.6 billion a year,” Ungar reports.

Private dental insurance is not common. “Just over a third of working-age adults nationally, and 64 percent of seniors, lacked dental coverage of any kind in 2012, meaning they had to pay for everything out of pocket,” Ungar writes. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act “requires health plans to cover dental services for children but not adults,” and “Medicare generally doesn’t cover dental care at all,” she notes.

In Kentucky, the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare has increased dental visits in the program by 37 percent, but it offers “only a short list of dental services,” such as extractions, which patients often choose instead of restorative work, for which they would have to pay.

Another big issue is that many dentists don’t accept Medicaid, which pays them only 41 percent of private reimbursement, Ungar reports. Also, Kentucky has a shortage of dentists. “A 2013 workforce study by Deloitte Consulting found the state needs 612 more to meet demand,” Ungar notes.

More dentists would encourage more preventive treatment, which dentists say would save a lot of money. “If we were going to the dentist more often, we could avoid a lot of this,” Dr. Ruchi Sahota, a California dentist and consumer adviser for the ADA, told Ungar. “Prevention is priceless.”

Fewer than 60 percent of Kentuckians saw a dentist in 2013, making their dental-visit frequency 43rd in the nation, according to the Kentucky Health Issues Poll.

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