Dentist Jeff Taylor

Mapleton dentist Jeff Taylor explains a procedure to a patient at the Mission of Mercy free dental clinic in July. It costs Taylor and other dentists to treat Medicaid patients and a proposed law would change that. File photo

Mapleton Dentist Jeff Taylor already sees the patients from his city’s nursing home, including those on public insurance.

But like most dentists, he’s not taking any new patients on Medicaid, the government’s insurance for low-income Americans.

When they’re treating children, Minnesota dentists receive just 26.7 percent of what a commercial insurance provider would pay for the same procedure, according to an American Dental Association study. That puts the state dead last in the country.

When it comes to adults, Minnesota is in 46th place.

The practical effect: Dentists often refuse to accept new patients who pay with government insurance. In many cases, payments from the state don't even cover overhead costs.

“We don’t mind working for free, but when it costs a bunch of money (to treat Medicaid patients), that’s not fair,” Taylor said.

A coalition of dentists and lawmakers, including Vernon Center Republican Sen. Julie Rosen, are trying to change that. Rosen’s bill would move Minnesota from its bottom-of-the-barrel dental reimbursement rate to a middle-of-the-pack state.

They need an estimated $80 million to $100 million, which are preliminary figures, over the next two years to reach that goal.

It’s a steep price, especially considering it reverses budget cuts of the last decade.

From 2003 to 2013, the state’s reimbursement as a percentage of commercial insurance payments has dropped by 43.4 percent — from 47.3 percent to 26.7 percent.

Advocates say the cost incurred by the status quo is even higher.

Mary Seieroe, dentistry chief at the Hennepin County Medical Center, said the hospital sees children every day with severe tooth decay, abscessed teeth and swollen faces.

Without dental care, children’s teeth deteriorate until, in pain, the kids wind up in the emergency room. It’s expensive: Dental-related visits to Minnesota emergency rooms have been estimated at $148 million over the past three years.

It’s also ineffective, considering that a hospital visit will often yield antibiotics and pain medication but no actual dental treatment.

Advocates didn’t know how much of that $50 million-a-year emergency room bill would be reduced by Rosen’s effort. The measure would also require Medicaid, called Medical Assistance in Minnesota, to cover extra procedures, including yearly dental screenings.

When asked if her bill had support from Senate leadership, Rosen said the chair of the human services finance committee, DFLer Tony Lourey of Kerrick, supported her efforts generally. But he’s not ready to commit money to expensive bills at this stage, Rosen said.

In the meantime, new Medicaid patients are having a tough time finding a dentist, Taylor said.

“There’s a lot of frustration on the part of Medical Assistance recipients,” he said.

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