Something to smile about


Dental Director Parita Patel shares the journey to full adult dental Medicaid coverage in Maryland.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen how hard it is for people to get the dental care they need without insurance, and how low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by these holes in our health care system.

The tragedy of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver, who died from an untreated tooth infection in 2007, sparked outrage and renewed calls for expanded dental coverage under Medicaid. As a result, the state voted to expand Medicaid dental coverage for children, but stopped short of ensuring dental care for thousands of eligible adults—like Jordan.

Diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, Jordan was scheduled to begin chemotherapy. He just needed a dental provider to clear any infections first. This pre-op screening, known as dental clearance, is a routine procedure, but no dentist would see Jordan because his Medicaid plan didn’t cover dental. His cancer treatment ground to an abrupt halt. “It felt like a death sentence,” he told me.

Those of us who live with untreated tooth decay and gum disease are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia and preterm births. And excruciating mouth pain affects our ability to speak, eat, work and sleep.

Like Jordan, clients often come to see us with advanced gum disease, cavities and tooth loss, because they’ve been denied access to dental care for years if not decades. Many need five dental visits or more.

Since our first dental clinic opened over a decade ago, Medicaid has covered just 4% of the dental services we provide at Health Care for the Homeless. The team and I have relied on grants and donations to shoulder the rest—and that simply isn’t a sustainable way to fund these most basic services.

After years of advocacy alongside clients and the Maryland Dental Action Coalition, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill (SB150/HB6) extending adult dental coverage to thousands of Medicaid recipients. This means access to oral exams, fillings, extractions, root canals, cleanings and more when the expansion goes into effect on January 1, 2023!

This is a monumental step, but there is still more work to do. My colleagues and I will continue to monitor the rollout of these new provisions to ensure that neighbors without homes get the same comprehensive dental coverage as you and me.

I saw Jordan as an emergency Saturday appointment. Years of chronic homelessness meant that he needed extensive care from an oral surgeon. But who was going to pay for it? Our funding at that time wouldn’t cover the procedure, and together we spent the next several days calling Jordan’s oncologist and the hospital as he urgently worked to get back into care.

Ultimately, we pooled enough funds to pay for the extraction and Jordan was finally able to put his cancer treatment back on track. Seeing a dentist shouldn’t be this complicated for Jordan or any one of us.

Thank your legislator for voting YES to dental care!

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