Health reform law isn’t as sweeping when it comes to dental coverage, but Appalachian dentists say it should help

Dr. Heather Whitt explains costs to Anita Slone at the Eula Hall
Health Center in Floyd County. (C-J photo by Jessica Ebelhar)

In Floyd County, almost 40 percent of adults have lost six or more teeth to decay or gum disease, more than 50 percent of adults have had at least one tooth pulled, and 25 percent of people older than 65 have lost all of their teeth. But “When it comes to dental care, the Affordable Care Act’s reach is limited,” Laura Ungar reports for The Courier-Journal.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires health plans to cover children’s oral health, but adult coverage is optional. Kentucky’s Medicaid benefits only cover certain services, such as oral exams, emergency visits, X-rays, fillings and extractions, and rural areas are dealing with a shortage of dentists who increasingly do not accept Medicaid.

Despite these obstacles, Dr. Heather Whitt, director of dental services for a network of health centers called Big Sandy Health Care, said she thinks the reform law will help people who live in Central Appalachia, a hotbed of bad oral health. She said the number of uninsured—which for a long time was almost 75 percent of her patients—is finally beginning to decrease. “Now, there are more adults having Medicaid. It’s definitely improved the patients we see here. . . . We stay very busy,” she said. “I’m excited more people have benefits.”

“She and other dentists said Medicaid, which is covering most of the area residents newly insured through the ACA, does not cover every service they might need,” Ungar writes. Whitt noted that Medicaid doesn’t cover costs for dentures or root canals for patients older than 21, and some dentists said Medicaid managed-care organizations do not send reimbursements quickly enough.

Whitt said that she and her staff try to teach patients about brushing, flossing and regular checkups. They also teach those things in schools, encouraging children to visit dentists. Dentists say that if the law and Medicaid can get more people to visit the dentist, they’ll learn to take better care of their teeth. “A lot of our patients just kind of fall through the cracks,” said Dr. James Stambaugh, another dentist at the clinic. “Small problems just grow exponentially.” (Read more)

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