Health changes to strain Colorado dentist shortage

DENVER (AP) — New dental care benefits are coming to hundreds of thousands of Colorado residents next year because of health care changes at the state and federal level. But Colorado is short on dentists, especially those serving Medicaid patients.

The dentist crunch has prompted a new statewide campaign by the Colorado Dental Association to get more dentists to treat the needy, The Denver Post reported ( ).

The number of new patients will rise after the state Legislature approved a new dental benefit this year for adults currently covered by Medicaid and as eligibility for Medicaid and pediatric benefits increase under the federal health law.

About 335,000 adults with Medicaid will gain access to dental care in the spring. Tens of thousands more will join the rolls as Medicaid is expanded under the Affordable Care Act. Added to them will be potentially thousands of privately insured children with dental care included under “essential benefits” minimums of the state health exchange.

Colorado has about 3,600 dentists. Nine counties have no dentists at all.

The state has only about 1,000 dentists actively enrolled as Medicaid providers. And of that 1,000, only about 690 take enough Medicaid patients to bill more than $10,000 in claims in a year, a threshold for assessing participation.

Even if only 20 to 25 percent of those eligible start taking advantage of dental benefits, “that’s 95,000 people seeking care,” said Karen Cody Carlson, executive director of the nonprofit Oral Health Colorado. “Having the benefit is a great positive step, but it’s creating an access problem as well.”

The dental association is asking each dentist in the state to accept at least five Medicaid patients or families in the coming year.

Lakewood’s Dr. Jeff Hurst will be a prime target of the persuaders. He is open to rejoining Medicaid and helped push for the changes, but he has been out of the program for decades because of infinitesimal reimbursement and maddening paperwork.

“It’s very daunting for a lot of dentists to see a packet of 40 pages to fill out (when trying to join Medicaid),” said Dr. Carol Morrow, a Walsh dentist working on state committees and with southeastern Colorado colleagues to expand public care. Medicaid has pledged to work with the dental community to speed signups and reimbursement, while also raising payment rates per procedure.

Legislation passed earlier this year sets a Medicaid adult benefit by at least April. It will be paid for with the state’s unclaimed-property fund, matched by federal dollars available for certain optional expansions of Medicaid benefits.

Many adults covered by Medicaid haven’t seen dentists for years, and abscesses, infections and disease lead to crisis. Mouth bacteria have even been shown as factors in heart disease, stroke and maternal health.

“I can track in my small area how many people go to the emergency rooms and how much that costs — it’s insane,” said Morrow, whose practice treats people from Colorado, southwestern Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle.


Information from: The Denver Post,

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