In his Sept. 5 Opinion column, Alex Beam overlooks a major source of dental care for low-income children and adults in Massachusetts: the state’s community health centers.
In 1999, after acknowledging a crisis-level shortage in the number of private dentists accepting Medicaid patients, state leaders asked health centers to expand their oral health care to more patients in need. Since that time, health centers have more than doubled their capacity for providing dental services by building new exam rooms, hiring new providers, and extending office hours. Today they serve about 200,000 low-income residents at 55 sites.
In addition to building oral health capacity, Massachusetts health centers are at the forefront of integrating dental and medical care for patients. This means that children receive fluoride varnish treatments as a part of their pediatric medical visits, patients diagnosed with diabetes are regularly assessed for gum disease, and patients who show up in hospital emergency departments with dental pain are referred into care at their local health center.
Despite this success — and as Beam points out — many state residents still go without access to oral health care. In Massachusetts, almost 800,000 people rely on the state’s Medicaid program for dental care. While dental therapists can help meet some of the demand, they are only part of what should be a more comprehensive effort to grow community-based and integrated oral health programs.