ABC 6 NEWS INVESTIGATES - Minnesota's Toothache: The Dilemma of Finding Dental Care on Medical Assistance

April 28, 2019 10:58 PM

(ABC 6 News) -- According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the number of Minnesotans on public health insurance programs, like Medical Assistance, is on the rise. However, experts say those people have a hard time finding dental care. 

Dental care is an issue Minnesota lawmakers have been talking about for years and there are a lot of opinions on how to fix it. However, for Minnesotans relying on public health insurance programs, every year without a solution is another year for potential health risks. 


Like many kids, seven-year-old Genevieve isn't a huge fan of going to the dentist. Also like many kids, getting the dental care she needs isn't always an easy feat, "The number of providers that are willing to treat children on medical assistance are very limited," said Sarah Hayes. 

Hayes runs Children's Dental Health Services in Rochester. It's a non-profit providing free dental care to kids in seven counties, "We travel to the schools and unpack dental chairs, compressors, equipment and provide full professional cleanings, sealants, fluoride varnish, all of the regular services you and I would receive at a traditional dental office we go and provide that in the schools for children that are on medical assistance and who are uninsured," said Hayes. 

In Southeast Minnesota, which includes Olmsted County and 14 other surrounding counties, there are approximately 150,000 people enrolled in public health programs; but many dentists won't take those patients. 

We called twenty dental clinics in Rochester and out of those twenty, only two said they're accepting new patients on Medical Assistance and even those two have waiting lists. 

"Access is very difficult for people on public programs. There are not very many private practices that can accommodate the demand for people on this care. Reimbursement in the state of Minnesota is very very low," said Karen Kleinhans. 

Kleinhans is the CEO of Community Dental Clinic, another non-profit trying to fill the gap in access to dental care for low-income Minnesotans. She says a big reason those providers won't take medical assistance is the reimbursement rates; which is how much money the state reimburses dental clinics for the work they do.

According to the Minnesota Dental Association, Minnesota ranks 46th out of the 50 states when it comes to medicaid reimbursement rates. When you look at those rates just for kids, the state comes in at 49th. It's an issue many say needs to change. 

"If the reimbursement rates continue to stay as low as they have been, there's no incentive to the providers to accept this insurance," said Hayes. 

Minnesota State Representative Tina Liebling says it's not that simple, "I wish it was just as simple as, pay more and you'll get better results. It isn't that simple, because we have a lot of different challenges that we have to address here," said Rep. Liebling. 

Rep. Liebling chairs the Health and Human Services Finance Committee. She said there is a lot happening this legislatives sesion to try and tackle the problem, "The Governor has a very interesting proposal to have all of our dental care for people on various programs, separated out from people on the HMO system and just paid for directly through a different system where everyone would be in the same pool," said Rep. Liebling.

And for a problem that goes beyond just teeth, many are hoping for a solution to help improve the health of people statewide; people like Genevieve. 

"A lack of dental care can lead to infections, swelling, pain, sometimes it's just pain when they're chewing, sometimes it's a big infection, problem, that they need to be seen in the emergency room," said dentist Molly Jarrett. 


Brianna Cook

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