Reinstating adult Denti-Cal discussed at hearing

In a positive sign for the millions of Californians in need of access to care, the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services on May 2 discussed the issue of restoring Medi-Cal adult dental benefits. 

Although no final recommendation was made by the subcommittee, the hearing raised the profile of this issue that has been led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who has been a vocal champion for bringing back adult dental services since his visit to the CDA Cares free dental clinic held in Sacramento last year.   

During the hearing, Bill Monning (D-Carmel), subcommittee chair, expressed that restoring the benefit is something the subcommittee is putting at the top of its priority list.

“I would say of all of the issues this committee has heard, it has been in the area of adult dental Medi-Cal that we have probably received the most comment from around the state, so it’s high on our radar,” Monning said.

It is high on the radar of many who testified before the committee as well. Ariane Terlet, DDS, is the chief dental officer at La Clinica de la Raza in Oakland.  Terlet told the subcommittee about how the cuts to Denti-Cal have forced many of her patients into choosing extraction over prevention.

“If you are a Medi-Cal patient and you walk into the emergency room with a broken arm, your only option isn’t amputation because that’s the only thing that’s covered. Under dental right now … my only option for a patient … is to do an extraction, which equals joblessness because if you don’t have a front tooth you are not hired,” Terlet said.

Sacramento resident Darrell Lake shared his story that aligned with Terlet’s testimony.

“I used to have Denti-Cal coverage up until it was cut … since it’s been removed I have not been able to see a dentist regularly, I’ve had two teeth extracted that were simple cavities, but of course, under the law, I just have to have them ripped out,” Lake said.

An increase in dental emergency room visits is another repercussion from the state’s cuts to adult Denti-Cal services. According to statistics provided to CDA from Anthony Mock, DDS, FAAHD, director of the Highland Hospital Dental Clinic in East Oakland, emergency room visits at his hospital have risen exponentially since the cuts happened. Specifically, drop-in emergencies to the dental clinic increased by 23 percent from 2009 (when the program was eliminated) to 2011.

Don Rollofson, DMD, chair of the CDA Foundation, shared his firsthand experiences with patients at the CDA Cares free dental clinics, which are organized by the CDA Foundation and CDA to provide free oral health care to Californians who experience barriers to care.

“We have hundreds of dentists helping people in need at these clinics, and we have two pervading issues,” Rollofson said. “First, every patient who tells us they’ve  already been hospitalized with a tooth infection says they briefly got better on antibiotics but then the cause of their infection came back. And second, patients will almost do anything not to lose their front teeth and they beg us to help them get some teeth so they can get a job.”

Sen. Bill Emmerson, DDS, (R-Redlands) serves on the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services and has also expressed interest in restoring adult Denti-Cal.

“Thousands of patients  seek treatment at events such as CDA Cares because they have no other option, and I think it does have a huge impact on these individuals’ ability to get jobs,” said Emmerson, an orthodontist. “I’ve seen firsthand how important this benefit is and I certainly hope that we have an opportunity to restore these benefits and provide the necessary care for Californians.”

According to the subcommittee’s detailed analysis of the issue, restoration of the original full scope of adult dental benefits would cost an estimated $166 million in state funds, plus matching federal funds.  The subcommittee also is exploring lower-cost options that would restore some critical prevention and treatment benefits.

For more information on Denti-Cal, click on “Major Issues” under the Advocacy tab at cda.org. For more information on the CDA Foundation’s CDA Cares free dental clinics, visit cdafoundation.org/cdacares.