Affordable dental care hard to find in Snohomish County
SNOHOMISH COUNTY - Low-income adults in Snohomish County are hard-pressed to find affordable dental care.
The state still supports low-income children’s dental needs, but it cut out almost all funding for adult dental care in 2010. Because of gaps in local dental care, low-income adults have nowhere to go in Snohomish County.
Instead, they’re showing up in emergency rooms when problems become too painful, but local emergency rooms are not equipped to perform dental work.
A 2010 county survey of low-income needs showed people put dental care as a higher priority than everything else, including housing.
People line up around the block at free dental work events such as the one held by Everett dentist Dr. Colleen Tracy on Saturday, March 16. Tracy’s free dental day saw 46 patients, with 25 more deferred for future appointments.
“For adults, it’s really hard” to get care, said LeeAnn Cooper, who oversees Snohomish Health District’s oral health program.
And because adult teeth are going untreated, dental issues can lead to larger health problems that are costly to fix.
Cooper is part of a new working group of clinicians and dentists trying to address the lack of dental services. Part of her job is to help low-income people find dental services. The health district does not provide dental services.
The Snohomish County Dental Access Committee started in December and has suggested ideas including free dental days, educating people about preventative dental care and finding resources for high-need patients.
The state Department of Social and Health Services stripped almost all adult dental care funding from its budget in 2010. In the same year, the state cut funding for community health centers to treat uninsured dental patients.
The cuts were “absolutely devastating” for adults, said Dr. Kishore Shetty, Community Health Center of Snohomish County (CHC) dental director.
The state will only pay for emergency teeth pulls. “No dentures, fillings or crowns,” Shetty said.
Abscessed teeth — the result of a deep cavity — can be saved with a root canal, but the state won’t pay for it anymore, he said. The other option is to pull the tooth.
People coming to his clinic “need more work than Medicaid will allow,” he said.
Medicaid is the health insurance program for low-income people funded by the state and federal governments.
In the county survey, 63 percent of people reported they put off getting dental care because of cost.
Desperate people have nowhere to turn to in this county for free services. Almost all Snohomish County private dentists reject Medicaid patients, Shetty said. Local hospitals don’t offer dental services.
The 112th Street CHC dental clinic in Everett saw 1,800 patients last year and the waiting list is up to two months, Shetty said. The CHC has a number of dental clinics throughout Snohomish County.
The 112th Street clinic is one of the few places offering sliding-scale dental care and sees 20 to 30 patients a day. Sea Mar, another nonprofit, is opening a low-income dental clinic in Monroe this spring.
Providence Regional Medical Center Everett reported about 1,800 people came to its emergency room for dental issues, hospital spokeswoman Cheri Russum said. The numbers are slightly trending down.
The hospital can’t do anything but give pain medication and referrals, Shetty said.
Providence does not have dentists in the emergency room, but can call oral surgeons to come in, Russum said. Unlike in King County, hospitals in Snohomish County do not have dentists in emergency rooms, Shetty said.
The state cuts affected 450,000 low-income people statewide, leaving them with only emergency access to dental care. The Seattle-based Washington Dental Service Foundation estimates the state could save $30 million in the next two years if access to regular care was provided.
The foundation found the charges for 54,000 dental visits to Washington’s emergency rooms over an 18 month period was $36 million.
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