THE PODIUM: State’s investment in oral health saves money — and lives

Author: Joann Ginal - January 25, 2018 - Updated: January 31, 2018

Joann Ginal

There are times when reaching out to those in need is not only the humane thing to do but also the most prudent. It can make for smart policy because it eases the cost on all society — a win-win for some of our most at-risk citizens and for the taxpaying public.

Coloradans have been making exactly that kind of wise, fiscally sound investment for several years now on behalf of those who face economic hardship and urgently need dental care. They simply need a dentist — something so many of us take for granted — but they don’t have the means. So, since 2014, the state has offered Medicaid coverage for adult dental care.

This has been an extremely important stride. It not only eases the suffering and improves the health of a vulnerable population, but it also saves Colorado taxpayers a lot of money. It is critical as we shape upcoming years’ state budgets that we keep this life-changing and, sometimes, even life-saving policy in place.

Medicaid long has covered oral health care for children from low-income households, but until 2014, their parents, among other adults living in poverty in Colorado, had few options. They typically endured a host of debilitating dental maladies until they wound up in a hospital emergency room.

That is unfortunately the worst place for them to go because it is the most expensive way to treat them for ailments that in most cases could have been resolved for a fraction of the cost if only they had been able to see a dentist in time. And when in desperation they seek emergency care without any coverage to pay for it, the tab is passed on to the rest of the community.

It is critical as we shape upcoming years’ state budgets that we keep this life-changing and, sometimes, even life-saving policy in place.

An abscess or gum disease, if left to fester, can be debilitating and cause systemic health failure. Neglecting oral health leads to serious conditions like strokes, heart and lung disease, pregnancy complications, pneumonia and diabetes. The people who endure such misery include not only the homeless but also the working poor, many of them parents whose children depend on them. That is a sad state of affairs that is also immensely costly to society.

After Colorado adults became eligible for Medicaid coverage for dental care in April of 2014, the cost savings were profound. The Colorado Department of Healthcare Policy and Financing found nearly $10 million in reductions in dental-related emergency room visits in the first year of the adult dental benefit alone. Additional long-term cost savings related to the delivery of preventive care and proactive interventions are anticipated.

That’s a tremendous return on our investment, and it doesn’t even come out of the state’s tax revenue. Lawmakers instead have tapped the interest on hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed assets like bank accounts that the state administers for owners who can’t be located.

To repeat, this is a win-win policy, and we can’t afford to backtrack on it. We also can’t expect the dental community to absorb the burden alone.

Commendably, Colorado dentists do open their hearts and their doors to the poor by providing them charitable care, but the need is too great to help all those who are desperately in need. That’s particularly true in rural as well as poor inner-city communities, where the need is greatest.

It’s imperative we keep this important safety net in place. It’s the right thing to do for those who have fallen on hard times — and it’s by far the most cost-effective way to help them.

Read The Podium weekly; it’s where prominent players in Colorado politics address the big issues of the day.

Joann Ginal

Joann Ginal

Joann Ginal, a Fort Collins Democrat, represents District 52 in the Colorado House. She is chairwoman of the House Health, Insurance & Environment Committee.