Priority: Boosting Denti-Cal reimbursements

A youngster getting a dental exam. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature strengthened California’s commitment to low income working families by investing $140 million of Proposition 56 tobacco tax revenue to support access to critical dental care for more than 13 million Medi-Cal children and seniors.

The increase in reimbursement rates for Denti-Cal providers – the first in 18 years – sent a clear signal that we may finally be within striking distance of increasing access to care for the state’s most vulnerable and underserved populations. For this, California’s elected leaders should be commended.

A sustained effort is needed to continue to chip away at the challenges of ensuring access to oral health care.

It was a smart move that kept faith with the voting public’s intentions, and the results are beginning to show great promise. For the first time in almost two decades provider rates have increased, allowing more dentists to accept Denti-Cal patients, which benefits the millions of children, seniors and working families who otherwise would lack access to oral health care.

Clearly, we’re pleased about improving access to dental care for millions of Californians, but this is only the first step. California’s Denti-Cal reimbursement rates remain substantially lower than commercial rates. The state has 424 Dental Care Health Professional Shortage Area designations, with 1.2 million people in these areas who continue to go without necessary care because there are not enough providers who accept Denti-Cal to adequately provide treatment to meet the needs of local communities.

A sustained effort is needed to continue to chip away at the challenges of ensuring access to oral health care. The Prop. 56 funding is set to be reexamined each year, rather than committed for the foreseeable future. That means all of the current progress could be undone and any future progress unrealized if we don’t protect those investments in this year’s budget.

The good news is the Governor’s January 2018 proposed budget dedicates an additional $70 million toward expanded access to dental care. Sustaining this funding will have a lasting impact for California families throughout the state. We know that good oral hygiene is vital for families in order to head off a host of negative consequences. Poor oral health can contribute to periodontal disease and other health problems, and can also have an influence on societal issues, including educational performance and school attendance. In fact, California’s students lose more than 5 million classroom hours annually because of dental-related illness. In a state of more than 39 million people, California’s children in particular should have every advantage during their formative years to grow in a healthy environment.

Western Dental takes seriously the budget investments made by the Governor and Legislature. We, along with other Denti-Cal providers, can now look to expanding our capacity to serve Denti-Cal patients and make genuine, lasting progress to reach patients who have not yet found a provider that accepts Medi-Cal, and we have already started making progress. This past January, we announced an organizational commitment to pediatric dentistry and hired our first-ever pediatric director to ensure the quality of care for children across our 24 pediatric-only offices. We’ve also continued to open new offices in underserved communities throughout the state.

We appreciate the progress made to this point and we look forward to working with other stakeholders to find lasting solutions to increase access to dental services for the state’s most vulnerable kids, adults and seniors.

Ed’s Note: Dr. John Luther is Chief Dental Officer for Western Dental, which provides family dental services in California, Arizona and Nevada.

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