The Legislature should expand dental care for more adults, and the place to start is with pregnant women and patients with diabetes. The payoff is improved health and saving taxpayer dollars by preventing expensive medical costs.
IT was a staggering sight: thousands of people lined up, many waiting hours or even overnight, hoping to get urgently needed health care. It happened here, in Seattle, one of the most prosperous cities in the country.
The Seattle/King County Clinic, organized by the Seattle Center Foundation and numerous donors, last month transformed KeyArena from an entertainment venue into a massive free dental, medical and vision-care pop-up clinic for thousands of people.
It’s a fitting location. KeyArena is where tens of thousands come together each year to support sports teams and attend concerts. But for four days, it was a site where our community rallied to improve health for our friends and neighbors.
This passion must continue beyond the four-day event.
The free clinic is a testament to the generosity and compassion of health professionals in our region, who donate their time and services. However, organizers and supporters agree that it is a temporary fix, not a solution, and it highlights an opportunity to do more to address the underlying problem of insufficient access to needed care. There are smart and measured investments our state can make right now to prevent the need for free clinics like this in the future.
Nearly 4,500 Washington residents showed up for care, and dental was the most requested service. Many attendees had dental coverage through Apple Health (Medicaid coverage). But access to such care is difficult. Most dentists do not accept Medicaid insurance, due to low reimbursement rates and other barriers.
Just 22 percent of adults covered by Apple Health saw a dental provider in 2015, compared to about 70 percent of those who have private dental coverage. That’s why many people take time off work or travel long distances to get care they desperately need at this free event.
More than 1.8 million people in Washington have health-care coverage through Apple Health. Many adults on Apple Health are students, recent college graduates or are employed in lower-wage jobs, such as retail and service positions. Many are newly insured and they find that access to dental care is a challenge. Washington has some of the lowest Medicaid dental reimbursement rates in the country.
A commercial fisherman from Seattle told us that it had been 15 years since he had seen a dentist. Though he had Apple Health for about two years, he had yet to be able to use his dental coverage to get care.
Access to dental care can be life changing. Visible decayed or missing teeth, pain and gum disease can impact job prospects, school attendance and grades, nutrition and quality of life. If you have ever had a toothache, you know how debilitating it can be.
Oral-health solutions make financial sense. Poor oral health is linked to diabetes complications and problems with pregnancy, among other health issues. Untreated oral infections can create unnecessary medical expenditures resulting from added health complications and trips to the emergency room. Much of this can be prevented with smart policy.
Washington has experience with investing in a dental-care access system that is working. Our state is a national leader in ensuring that children with Apple Health receive dental care through the statewide ABCD program (Access to Baby and Child Dentistry). The system we’ve collectively created can be extended to adults. A place to start is with pregnant women and patients with diabetes. Getting them the dental care they need will improve their health and likely save taxpayer dollars by preventing expensive medical costs.
The 2017 legislative session is an opportunity for lawmakers to support this smart, measured investment. Let’s use momentum from the pop-up clinic to urge legislators to seize this opportunity. The Seattle/King County Clinic is a call to action, and the time for action is now.