In recent years, the link between oral and overall health has become increasingly pronounced. Unfortunately, Medicaid still lags a bit behind. While Medicaid legislation requires states to provide dental benefits to children covered by the Children's Health Insurance Program, states are given the option for adults.
Medicaid covers the costs of dental services for children younger than the age 21 as part of a set of benefits, referred to as the Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment. At a minimum, these services include maintenance of dental health, restoration of teeth, and relief of pain and infections.
It is worth pointing out that Medicaid has shown improvement. From 2000 to 2008, there was an 11 percent jump in Medicaid-eligible children who received dental services. Still, those numbers remain below Healthy People 2020's goal of 56 percent of children having a dental visit within a year.
Rocky progress in Colorado
Each state varies in what costs of dental care they cover. In Colorado, for example, nearly half of a million residents are expected to acquire dental care under Medicaid by 2016. Two state policy changes allowed for this to happen, improving availability to oral health care for low-income Coloradans across the state. In 2013, its state legislature voted to expand Medicaid's dental benefits from just kids to kids and adults.
Now, Medicaid enrollees with dental benefits are supposed to more than double from 348,000 in 2012 to 844,000 in 2016.
The big obstacle there, however, is access. The treatments exist, just not in the right places. According to a recent study released by the Colorado Health Institute, 17 counties in Colorado don't have a dentist who accepts Medicaid.
"We are on the verge of much better care for our under-served population," Cara Russell, head of the Chaffee County's program to improve oral health, told Health Policy Solutions. "But we're not there yet, and the transition is going to be painful."
"I think every person deserves the same kind of care, whether they can afford it or not," Carol Morrow, the only dentist in Baca County who accepts Medicaid, told the source.
The Medicaid expansion will allow her to get some compensation for adult care she now provides for free, she said.
Ohio stays hopeful
In Ohio, with the recent extension of Medicaid to more low-income adults, an estimated 275,000 Ohioans will gain dental coverage. Like in Colorado, this does not translate perfectly to easy access, but many residents remain optimistic about the progress.
"While coverage does not necessarily mean access, it does give these Ohioans a way to pay for needed health care services," Cathy Levine, executive director, told the Columbus Dispatch.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania covers necessary dental services, such as root canals and crowns.
Preventative dental care can free up emergency rooms, since people won't just be showing up in pain or in need of expensive surgery. Poor oral health is connected with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and oral cancer, according to studies cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As far as kids go, as many as 8.7 million people younger than 21 nationwide are estimated to gain coverage by 2018, an analysis funded by the American Dental Association found. Indeed, this is good news, as the health of primary teeth is an indicator of oral health. However, adults will have to check with their state's plans to see where they fall.
"We sometimes forget that our heads are attached to the rest of our bodies when it comes to the health care system," Sandy Oxley, CEO of Voices for Ohio's Children, told The Dispatch.
She pointed out that dental benefits conventionally have been treated as afterthoughts.