Study: “Dental Deserts” Likely as More Coloradans Receive Benefits

Two state health policy changes rolling out this year are intended to improve access to oral health care for low-income Coloradans. The state legislature last year voted to expand Medicaid’s dental benefits to adults – before it only covered children for most kinds of care.

The change will go into effect around the same time as Colorado expands Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act to those who make slightly more than the federal poverty level.

Colorado Health Institute map shows percentage of dentists by county who accept Medicaid.

Colorado Health Institute map shows percentage of dentists by county who accept Medicaid.

The pair of changes is expected to grow the ranks of Medicaid enrollees with dental benefits to 844,491 in 2016, from 348,142 in 2012, according to a study released last month by the Colorado Health Institute.

But 17 counties in Colorado don’t have a dentist who accepts Medicaid, the study reported, and there will be “dental deserts” where no care is available even with increased benefits.

Some rural areas simply don’t have dentists at all – you won’t find one in sparsely populated Kiowa County in the eastern plains, or in southern Colorado’s Mineral County, the institute found. In more populous Delta and Elbert counties, there are dentists – but none that take Medicaid.

“We are on the verge of much better care for our underserved population,” said Cara Russell, who heads Chaffee County’s program to improve oral health, which works to educate people on the importance of good oral hygiene. “But we’re not there yet, and the transition is going to be painful.”

Chaffee is a county where few dentists accept Medicaid,  and residents there can often  drive 65 to 110 miles to find a dentist who does, Russell said.

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