On Tuesday of this week, Governor Jay Nixon made an announcement that oral health advocates, dental providers and – most importantly – adults currently eligible for MO HealthNet (Missouri Medicaid) have longed to hear: Missouri will provide MO HealthNet adult dental benefits.
Now we must wait up to 90 days for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to approve an amendment to the Missouri Medicaid state plan, but the Governor has made the decision to move forward. We are grateful to the Governor and the Missouri General Assembly for moving this essential health care policy. Our heartfelt thanks to both!
Adult dental benefits were cut from Missouri Medicaid in 2005. In the ensuing years we have seen the increased use of emergency rooms to address untreated dental conditions. These conditions could have been more efficiently and effectively managed through basic and routine oral health preventive and treatment services, at far less cost than emergency room services.
Emergency rooms provide many great services, but dental care is not part of the mix. Generally, antibiotics for dental infections and pain killers for the misery of dental pain are provided, both of which provide relief, but do not resolve dental issues, making return emergency room visits likely. The flood of people with untreated dental conditions coming to emergency rooms has been the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” signaling an inefficient use of limited resources. As one lawmaker remarked, “That’s no way to run a railroad!”
Coal mine and railroad metaphors aside, the Governor has made a wise choice to move forward with the budget passed by the legislature. Implementing adult dental benefits will save the state money; make Medicaid recipients more likely to maintain the health status necessary to work and contribute; curb the pain of untreated dental conditions; and make it easier for dental providers to participate in a consistent system of oral health care that will support health over the long-term. And, over time, Missouri should begin to see a reduction of emergency room use for dental conditions.
Time, however, is part of the ongoing issue with dental care. The legislature passed a state budget last session that included one-time funding for dental benefits in Medicaid. If we are to reap the full advantages and savings of the provision of dental benefits, it must be a permanent part of the health care system that is backed up with consistent funding in the Missouri budget. Missouri funds for Medicaid dental benefits will be matched for federal funds, making this change easier to afford for the state.
We call on the Governor and the legislature to make funding for adult dental benefits a permanent part of Missouri’s budget.
Oral health advocates and champions, including many in the Missouri legislature, have worked diligently for several years. We are more than happy to reach this important moment, but we know that we must continue to advocate so that Missouri’s oral health is a priority for everyone.