- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2013

With much of the capital’s attention focused on doctors and Obamacare, a panel of witnesses told a Senate hearing that rising costs and the lack of quality care for lower-income Americans is leading to a national dental crisis as well.

Many of the problems plaguing regular health care services are also being faced by dentists — because many poorer patients can’t afford preventive dental care, they often show up in the emergency room when a dental crisis occurs.

“Hospital dental emergency rooms are very expensive, and very inefficient since for most visits, the physicians prescribe antibiotics and pain medication and suggest the patient see a dentist the next day, something these patients cannot afford,” Dr. Frank Catalanotto, of the University of Florida College of Dentistry, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee on primary health issues Thursday.

Americans spent an estimated $108 billion on dental care in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available.

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, pushed for better coverage for these families who need dental care the most, and are least likely to get it.

“Millions and millions of people live in towns where it is difficult to access dental care,” he said. “Low-income Americans with Medicaid in nearly half the states have no dental benefits, or can receive services only in case of a dental emergency.”

In parts of the country, low-income Americans rely on dental clinics that come around maybe once per year to provide free dental care to uninsured adults.

Dr. Debony Hughes, a public health dentist working in Maryland, recently participated in one such clinic and recalled being “overwhelmed” by the number of patients seeking treatment.

“For two days, dental professionals treated hundreds of adults each day,” she said. “People slept overnight in hopes to receive care.

Many received quality care but I believe patients should not have to endure those conditions to receive treatment.”

Greg Nycz, executive director of Family Health Center of Marshfield, Inc., in Wisconsin, said there was “tremendous prevention potential” in dentistry.

“We believe there is also a tremendous potential to improve health and reduce costs,” he said.

Mr. Nycz has helped build dental centers throughout Wisconsin that are accessible in lower-income neighborhoods. Because the centers are not privately owned, they are able to provide more affordable care.

“Our approach to health care can create offsetting savings by substituting quality dental services for more expensive emergency room treatments,” Mr. Nycz said.

States like Alaska and Minnesota have enlisted the help of dental therapists to provide affordable care for children and low-income adults that does not need to be provided by dentists.

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