Local dental expert talks teeth

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BY RIA BERGER: In 2016, nearly 65 percent of California voters approved Proposition 56, the California Healthcare, Research And Prevention Tobacco Tax Act.  The state began collecting the new revenue on April 1, and while the expected $1.2 billion in new revenue is intended to go toward increasing access to dental care for more than 13 million children, working adults and their families, the state has proposed redirecting the funds for other existing budget obligations.

BY RIA BERGER: In 2016, nearly 65 percent of California voters approved Proposition 56, the California Healthcare, Research And Prevention Tobacco Tax Act.  The state began collecting the new revenue on April 1, and while the expected $1.2 billion in new revenue is intended to go toward increasing access to dental care for more than 13 million children, working adults and their families, the state has proposed redirecting the funds for other existing budget obligations.

In Orange County, there are more than 1 million people who depend on Medi-Cal for vital dental services and currently, they face significant barriers to access.

Access to dental care services might seem uncomplicated. But for tens of thousands of Californians – many of whom are children – getting proper treatment for a cavity or other basic dental services can be a challenge or virtually impossible. In fact, only one in three Medi-Cal children received any preventive dental care under the state’s Denti-Cal program in 2015. For adults, it was one in 11.

Children in particular are most vulnerable. If left untreated, pediatric tooth decay and cavities can quickly accelerate into more serious health issues such as malnourishment and diabetes that could pose long-term risks, not to mention costs.

Why aren’t our children getting the care they deserve? Because only 20 percent of dentists are able to accept Medi-Cal patients. Reimbursement rates for basic dental care are only 29 percent of commercial rates and significantly lower than the Medicaid average for the U.S., which the Little Hoover Commission says actually discourages dentists from serving Medi-Cal patients.

In Orange County, the lack of access to care has translated into a challenge for the more than 299,000 children who are enrolled in Medi-Cal.

Exacerbating the “access gap” is the fact that the reimbursement rate for dental service providers has not been increased in more than 17 years. As chief executive officer of one of the area’s largest provider of dental services in Orange County, I can attest first-hand on the important role that good oral hygiene plays in overall childhood growth and successful development into healthy adults. It can make a difference in everything from school performance to self-esteem and overall social growth. When a child cannot see a dentist because the access to services simply isn’t there, it is both tragic – and completely preventable.

For adults and seniors, the consequences can be severe. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health issues can accelerate because of untreated oral and dental issues. As California’s population continues to age, this can pose alarming health ramifications. California eliminated non-emergency adult dental care in 2009, and adult Medi-Cal patients didn’t have access to preventive and restorative care until 2014.

Proposition 56 dollars are intended to expand access to dental care, including teledentistry services, mobile dental teams and mobile vans which are increasingly vital to reach California’s more rural populations.

As lawmakers and the governor prepare next year’s state budget, they should agree to include new funding from Proposition 56 to improve delivery and accessibility of dental care, raise reimbursement rates and increase services to underserved communities.

Located in Garden Grove, Ria Berger is Chief Executive Officer, Healthy Smiles Orange County, whose mission is to improve the oral health of children in Orange County through collaborative programs directed at prevention, outreach and education, access to treatment and advocacy.