The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 3, 2013

Our View: Dental care shows a growing gap in state

The Free Press

— Dental care for low-income people in Minnesota needs some teeth.

The current rate of reimbursement for Medical Assistance dental providers is based on a 1989 rate schedule and has not been increased in nearly 15 years.

That dismal rate places Minnesota 43rd nationally in dental-fee reimbursements. Dentists here are only paid 35 percent of their actual fee for providing the care, compared to 60 percent nationally. 

The result?

The majority of dentists in the state can’t afford to take on low-income patients. They lose money doing so.

Some do it anyway, or have volunteered to do free dental care during February’s Give Kids a Smile campaign or during Mission of Mercy clinics. The Mission of Mercy clinic in Mankato last summer — the first of its kind in the state — provided $1.3 million in free dental care to 2,000 patients during two days at the civic center.

Although the success of pulling off the massive Mankato dental clinic is a noteworthy accomplishment, which relied on more than a thousand volunteers, something’s wrong when that’s the way many people have to get their dental care. Some of the free-clinic patients came from across the state had waited years to get their dental problems fixed until the Mission of Mercy helped them. In the Mankato region, some low-income residents are lucky enough to have Open Door Clinic available for dental care, including mobile units that travel to rural areas.

Others who can’t wait for dental care end up in emergency rooms. An average of $49 million a year is spent treating dental patients in Minnesota for conditions that could be treated more cost effectively and perhaps be prevented in a dental office.

To make matters worse, tooth decay among kids in Minnesota is worsening. The state Department of Health recently released a report showing the tooth decay rate among third-graders is about 55 percent, 2 percent higher than the national average. Tooth decay is the most chronic childhood disease.

Proposed legislation to fix this gap in dental reimbursement rates would help low-income Minnesotans get the care they need. Good dental care can save expensive medical costs in the long run. The legislation would update Medical Assistance base reimbursement rates to 75 percent of the 2011 median dental fee schedule.

It’s important that the bill gets passed this session, as many new Medical Assistance patients are going to enter the system based on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Updating the reimbursement schedule for dentists so they can afford to treat low-income patients is necessary to get people basic care.

Dental health isn’t a luxury. It’s time to fund dental care so those who can’t afford it can get help without having to visit a hospital emergency room.