Colorado's poor able to get dental care thanks to lawmaker vote

Expanded Medicaid program gives new access

DENVER - The Affordable Care Act requires dental care for all children, but the state of Colorado has gone above and beyond that requirement and the policy is changing lives.

Colorado is one of just 16 states to approve an extensive adult dental benefit for Medicaid recipients, and statistics show it has opened the doors for many of the state’s poorest to get dental care – if they can find a provider.

At Denver’s Inner City Health Center, Bobby Rufus hoped that she would find something to smile about.

“I would have that aching feeling in my teeth, but the things I needed done -- I couldn’t afford it,” said Rufus, who did not have dental insurance for years, and her front teeth had decayed. “I wouldn’t smile. I wouldn’t smile.”

In 2014, Colorado lawmakers voted to extend limited dental coverage to adults.

They set a cap at $1,000 per year, except for emergency services and dentures, opening new opportunities for people like Rufus.

"We’ve actually had many patients who their very first visit to the dentist has been with us and they're in their 40s or 50s," said Dr. Cody Garrison, the dental director at Inner City Health Center. "A surprising number of people in our population are unable to eat properly because they don't have the teeth necessary to do so."

Garrison said his clinic now has about 30 percent Medicaid patients.

“Our biggest goal is to see reduced visits to an emergency room or a primary care doctor for treatments,” said Garrison, who said they work to make sure patients know about the $1,000 benefit available to them. “For care beyond that, we work with our patients on a sliding fee scale to pay reduced rates based on their income.”

Since Colorado expanded Medicaid coverage, the number of Coloradans with Dental Insurance has shot up in two years from about 61 percent to more than 70 percent.

"Oral health care is being noted as an increasingly important aspect of health care," said Adam Fox, with the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.

Still, he said, not as many patients are using dental coverage even though it's available for them. 

“So while we’ve seen a fairly dramatic increase in dental coverage, we haven’t seen the same kind of increase in people actually seeking dental care,” said Fox, who said many people don’t realize they now have the coverage. "But there is also the issue of not enough providers in the Medicaid system, particularly within oral health care.”

It is difficult to find a dentist who takes Medicaid, which is why Rufus is so grateful for the clinic she found.

"I feel more confident. I can smile," said Rufus, who was given new dentures. “It means the world to me."

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