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Sick of Barebones Dental Benefits? The Tide Is Turning for Low-Income Patients in California

Brendan John / Wikimedia Commons

Brendan John / Wikimedia Commons

California's historically problematic program for low-income dental care has finally been revitalized, and dentists are bracing for more patients.

Denti-Cal has been underused — partly because the benefits were so sparse, and partly because of low provider reimbursement rates. One state report found that, while roughly 7 million adults are enrolled, less than a quarter had any dental visits, and only half of children in the program saw a dentist.

Last June, the state raised reimbursement rates to incentivize more dentists to take on Denti-Cal patients. And starting in 2018, the state is covering benefits that were slashed for adults back in 2009: root canals, gum-disease treatments and other important services.

Before January, Denti-Cal recipients weren’t covered for white crowns, so if a tooth broke they might just have it taken out. Only full dentures were covered — not partials — so some patients had to extract and replace healthy teeth.

Dr. John Luther is chief dental officer for Western Dental, a network of more than 190 California clinics that accept Denti-Cal. He said people have been going for too long without access to necessary services.

“There’s a tremendous pent-up demand,” he said.

Western Dental saw a 51 percent increase in office visits for adult Denti-Cal patients this January, over January 2017.

“The patients can get more of what they really need in their dental care as opposed to just getting what was previously reimbursed,” Luther said.

The California Dental Association has been working to notify adults of the change so that they can seek long-overdue services. Children were not impacted by the expansion and have the same benefits they did last year.


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