Paying for dental benefits – The Virginian-Pilot

Virginia took a major step in health care last year by expanding Medicaid coverage to include comprehensive dental benefits for most eligible adults. In its recently approved budget, the legislature backed that worthwhile effort with the funding needed to make it work, raising reimbursement rates for dentists who provide that care.

Just as Medicaid expansion in 2018 was the product of cooperation — a Republican-led General Assembly working with Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam — this needed change only happened because of lawmakers working together to improve the lives of tens of thousands of Virginians.

Expanding the state’s medical safety net was both good politics and good policy. If proof was needed, it came quickly as the COVID pandemic threw a lot of people unexpectedly out of work.

Providing enough money to persuade more dentists to offer dental care to Medicaid patients makes the same sort of good sense, the sort that should transcend partisan differences.

Making it possible for many more adults to receive good dental treatment is obviously the right thing to do if we want to make life better for Virginians who face hard times.

It’s also the smart thing to do if we want to use Medicaid dollars wisely, to take care of smaller problems before they become much more serious, more expensive ones.

Dental care shouldn’t be a luxury. It’s an essential part of overall health care. Regular checkups and cleaning can prevent many problems. Pulling a bad tooth or filling a cavity can not only alleviate pain; it can also avert a serious infection that might spread through the body, possibly becoming life-threatening.

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Using Medicaid to pay for routine dental care can prevent a more serious medical condition that might involve much costlier treatment, perhaps surgery, and an expensive hospital stay. Dental care, like annual physical exams and screenings, can ward off serious problems and save lives. Dental care certainly can save taxpayers’ dollars.

But expanding Medicaid coverage of dental benefits wasn’t getting those important jobs done because dentists weren’t providing the care. As many thousands of Virginians became eligible for Medicaid dental coverage for the first time, the number of dentists willing to accept new Medicaid patients was dropping. Fewer than 2,000 dentists agreed to accept Medicaid patients.

Patients eligible for dental benefits are turned away or face long waits while problems worsen. The state Department of Medical Assistance Services is working to persuade more dental practices to accept Medicaid patients. Free community clinics are expanding their dental services. The number of Medicaid patients being treated at the state’s only dental school, at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, has soared.

The reluctance of dental practices to accept new Medicaid patients should come as no surprise. The Virginia Dental Association predicted when the expansion was approved that many dentists wouldn’t participate unless reimbursement rates — unchanged for about 15 years — were raised. A dental provider is, after all, a business, and dental offices can’t be expected to provide care to large numbers of Medicaid patients if the reimbursement is inadequate.

So it is good news to see that the budget compromise approved by the General Assembly last week includes an increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates to make the promise of dental benefits a reality for more Virginians. Though the House and Senate had different views of how to proceed, they agreed to the more generous provision, which should encourage more dentists to accept Medicaid patients.

Expanding Medicaid to cover comprehensive dental benefits for adults was a major change for the better for health care in Virginia, one with the potential to improve quality of life and health for many of our neediest residents. We know it will make a lasting difference for a great many people.

Now lawmakers have backed that change with the funding needed to make it work. This was a necessary and needed component of any budget agreement and one that commonwealth residents should celebrate for its inclusion in the budget.

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