Need for low-cost dental care in Cook County far exceeds services
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
by Lisa Donovan
After losing her job and her health insurance
two years ago, Jamila Lawrence was relieved to receive her Medicaid
card. That is, until the Bronzeville mother of two tried to use it last
year to find a dentist willing to perform a root canal on one of her
“A lot of people do not accept that insurance,
especially for anything on the level of a root canal. And everyone I
called told me I had to pay up front, in full,” she said. “It was
frustrating. . . . I was in excruciating pain.”
Lawrence eventually got the root canal last summer after she found a dentist who agreed to put her on a payment plan.
But she still struggles to pay out of pocket for her kids’ check-ups because their dentist doesn’t accept Medicaid, either.
Thousands of people who are uninsured or on
Medicaid face similar challenges in Cook County, where the need for
low-cost dental care far outstrips available services.
The Bridge to Healthy Smiles campaign, which has
pushed for greater access to dental care in Illinois, estimates that
there is one dental clinic in Cook County for every 15,700 children who
rely on public aid.
An audit of county dental services released Monday highlights the scope of the problem.
The Cook County Department of Public Health has just four suburban dental clinics, half as many as it operated in 2005.
As a result, the number of patients seen at these
clinics has dropped sharply, and wait times for appointments range from
three months for routine care to as long as a year for specialty care,
according to the report, which was commissioned by members of the Cook
In addition, the report found that visits to county
dental clinics were suspended entirely for several months as the county
dealt with the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak.
“Right now, [Cook County] is in a crisis state,” said Dr. Cheryl Watson-Lowry, of the Chicago Dental Society.
Access to dental care in Chicago is especially scarce, she said.
Since the Chicago Department of Public Health
closed the last of its dental clinics, the University of Illinois at
Chicago’s College of Dentistry and Stroger Hospital are among the few
remaining places city residents can go for low-cost dental care.
Community health centers do what they can to fill the gap, but there are too few, Watson-Lowry said.
Private dentists, meanwhile, are reluctant to
accept Medicaid patients because the state’s low reimbursement rates
barely cover the cost of care, said Dr. Greg Johnson, executive director
of the Illinois State Dental Society.
The consequences of tooth decay, gum disease and
other common ailments go beyond pain and embarrassment. Poor oral health
has also been linked to heart disease, premature birth and diabetes.
Johnson said the crisis will continue without
higher Medicaid reimbursement rates, more publicly funded dental clinics
and better incentives for dentists to practice in underserved areas.
As the county’s independent hospital board begins
its plan to take the health system in a new direction, Cook County
Commissioner Peter Silvestri said the new report should spark discussion
on how to incorporate broader access to dental care into that vision,
even if it means making cuts elsewhere.
“We have to reassert the importance of dental care,” he said.