Colorado Struggles to Get Medicaid Eligible Kids into Dentist’s Chair

Kids in Colorado miss nearly 8 million hours of school each year because of toothaches and infections, and many kids in pain end up using expensive emergency room services or undergoing multiple dental procedures while under anesthesia.

Despite robust efforts by multiple state organizations to get more children into the dentist’s chair, less than half of the 453,000 Coloradans under age 21 who were eligible for Medicaid dental benefits in federal fiscal year 2011 received some kind of dental service, according to an I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS analysis of state records. Only a quarter of Colorado counties met a 2010 state goal of getting at least 44 percent of Medicaid-eligible residents under age 19 to visit a dentist.

While the state appears to be making strides in improving its numbers, part of the problem is the paucity of dentists willing to see Medicaid children. Only 10 percent of Colorado’s 3,500 or so dentists are considered “significant” Medicaid providers, meaning that they are reimbursed for at least 100 visits per year. Moreover, 20 of Colorado’s 64 counties do not have a dentist who accepts Medicaid. In total, 21 percent of the dentists report having some Medicaid patients, and 16 percent say they are willing to accept new Medicaid patients.

Plenty of Colorado children covered by commercial dental insurance also fail to see a dentist regularly, about four in 10, according to a 2010 study by the Colorado Health Institute. But kids in low-income families are most at risk for tooth decay, which is the most common childhood disease.

“People tend to believe that because they’re just baby teeth and they’re going to fall out, we don’t need to worry about them,” said Karen Cody Carlson, executive director of Oral Health Colorado, an umbrella group of oral health advocates. “They don’t realize that kids can get severe infections, life-threatening infections, sometimes.”

Started by several Colorado foundations in 2006, Cavity Free at Three aims to ensure that all children have a “dental home,” a dentist they see regularly like their pediatrician, by age 1. To that end, the organization has initiatives to educate parents, get more dentists to accept Medicaid and teach all health care providers who see children to screen them for dental problems.

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