No one should be going to the emergency room (ER) for dental care. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize how important dental care is, and they don’t invest in it. When serious dental problems arise, a visit to the ER is the only option.
This is especially likely for people who don’t have dental insurance and can’t afford to pay dental costs out of pocket. That is the very population that was affected by the recent shift in Medicaid in California when low tax revenues forced the state to stop adult dental coverage for Medicaid recipients. And, a new study shows, that change led to a marked increase in ER visits related to dental care.
The study shows that the loss of coverage for basic dental care through Medicaid did result in a significant increase in ER visits for dental care. How much of an increase? Almost a third (32%) more people visited the ER for dental care after the benefits stopped. Even more striking is that the cost of these visits increased much more: 68%. This means that people were not only experiencing more dental emergencies–they were experiencing more serious emergencies, such as infected teeth or severe gum disease.
California stopped offering dental coverage with the intent of saving money, and from that standpoint, the decision was probably a smart one. The annual cost of adult dental coverage in California is about $246 million a year. In contrast, the increased cost for ER visits was about $1.25 million.
But there are other costs that aren’t factored into this analysis. First, there’s the cost to employers and employees from dental injuries. Employed adults lose 164 million hours a year due to dental conditions, and that doesn’t include productivity lost because of toothaches, the most common type of orofacial pain. People working at the poverty line can scarcely afford to lose this work time.
Next, there’s the social cost that poor dental care puts on us by creating a cycle of poverty. An attractive, healthy smile is essential to getting and maintaining a good job. If people on Medicaid are shackled into low-quality jobs by poor oral health, it’s likely they will stay on Medicaid.
Not only will they stay on Medicaid, but they will also likely be back in the ER for dental care in the near future. Dental care in the ER is of poor quality and often doesn’t fix the problems.
And, finally, we have to consider the quality of life of our fellow Californians. Our smile is an essential part of our emotional wellbeing, and without a healthy one, people suffer.
Now that California has reinstated dental benefits for adults on Medicaid, hopefully, more Californians will enjoy healthier, happier smiles.