Guest Opinion: Medicaid dental benefit is working

The 2018 Colorado General Assembly started recently, with opening day speeches from Republican and Democrat leaders outlining their priorities for the session. The focus for most lawmakers, as well as Governor Hickenlooper, will be on transportation funding, rural broadband access, reform of the state’s pension system and school funding.

An important issue for the citizens and communities in southern Colorado that was not discussed during opening day speeches is 2013’s Senate Bill 242, which started a limited dental benefit for adults covered by Medicaid. I supported this legislation because I knew how much it would help constituents in my district as well as Colorado taxpayers. I had often heard from people in our district about their challenges in finding affordable dental care, and knew this program would be a big help for them. And we are seeing just that kind of help become a reality. Early reports are coming in from this program, and are showing great results for the people in our district and around Colorado.

Before this dental benefit launched in 2014, Medicaid covered dental care for children, but their parents and other adults, including many seniors, were not able to receive the care they needed. Far too many adults across Colorado were financially unable to visit a dentist to receive basic preventive care or to address serious dental health issues. They often turned toward hospital emergency rooms to address decay, infections and other dental problems that were causing pain and sometimes putting their overall health at risk. Using ERs for care – and especially for conditions the ER cannot directly treat, like dental – is one of the top reasons that health care costs are skyrocketing.

In addition, many adults with Medicaid coverage also have other high-risk health conditions. Poor oral health can aggravate risk for strokes, heart and lung disease, pneumonia and diabetes. It’s smart policy to help prevent these costly and serious conditions through a much less expensive investment in good dental care. With SB242, adults who receive their health insurance through Medicaid now have a $1,000 annual dental allowance. Those receiving dental coverage because of this legislation include many hardworking adults and families across our southern Colorado community who rely on Medicaid for their health care.

The good news is this program works. While it can sometimes be challenging to find local care providers in our area, we have many wonderful dentists in our district who stepped up to join as Medicaid providers. In fact, a significant portion of the dentists across the state joined as Medicaid providers, and many are adopting innovative models, like telehealth, to make care more convenient in rural and underserved parts of Colorado. In addition to these efforts to bring our care closer to home, adult patients are using their dental coverage, addressing lingering dental issues —and seeking preventative care and regular checkups so that small dental issues don’t become costly health problems.

The Colorado Department of Healthcare Policy and Financing, which administers Medicaid, reported a nearly $10 million reduction in dental-related emergency care in just the first year of the adult dental benefit. The department anticipates the state will see further savings from the delivery of preventive care and timely dental procedures. The department is still gathering numbers on cost savings related to medical conditions that can be aggravated by poor dental care, but additional cost savings are expected in that area as well.

This clearly shows that adult Medicaid dental coverage makes strong fiscal sense for Colorado—it helps people in our district and it saves money for Colorado taxpayers. Definitely a win-win for the state, and especially for rural communities.

With this in mind, I continue to support the adult Medicaid dental benefit, and on behalf of my constituents, plan to continue to speak up for the help it has brought to the people of my district.