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By Lynn Graebner

One third of California residents and half of the state’s children qualify for Denti-Cal, the state’s Medi-Cal dental program. So leaders in counties like Santa Cruz, where 82 percent of the dentists don’t take Denti-Cal, are seeking new ways to serve this long-suffering low-income population.

“Most California dentists want nothing to do with Denti-Cal,” stated an April report by the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency. It hammered Denti-Cal — calling it a broken system that has alienated its partners in the dental profession. Less than half of Denti-Cal beneficiaries use their benefits because they simply can’t find a dentist who will see them.

That has left counties, community clinics, nonprofits and private dentists to cobble together programs and safety nets for thousands of residents. Some of those are showing promise and some counties plan to expand them by applying for part of the $740 million state and federal agencies have allocated for the new Dental Transformation Initiative. It is meant to incentivize more dentists to offer preventative dental care to children.

While the California Dental Association, counties and private dentists say this is an encouraging step, there’s a long way to go to reviving the dysfunctional system, they say.

Dientes Community Dental Care, a community dental clinic receiving federal funding through Santa Cruz County, decided to commission its own report: Increasing Access to Dental Services for Children and Adults on the Central Coast, released in April. It showed that of the 80,000 people on Medi-Cal in Santa Cruz County, only 31 percent of them were able to see a dentist in 2014. Thirty-one percent of children under age 11 in the County have never seen a dentist and seniors on Medicare have no dental benefits except for extreme needs.

“Insurance does not equal access,” said Laura Marcus, Dientes’ executive director.

Despite its expansions, Dientes has to reject about 20 calls daily for dental service. Gaye Hancock was among them. She lost her job during the economic downturn and is working again but now has Denti-Cal. She started calling Dientes two years ago and finally resorted to getting her teeth cleaned at the Cabrillo College Dental Hygiene Clinic by student hygienists. They found cavities and bone loss which have forced Hancock to chew on just one side of her mouth since 2014.

“I’m 63, I’m just fighting to keep my teeth healthy,” she said.

As a result of the Santa Cruz report, the Santa Cruz County Oral Health Access Steering Committee emerged, including Santa Cruz and Monterey County government, education and dental industry representatives among others. They plan to present strategies in December 2016.

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