Comment: Loss of dental health benefit in pandemic a bad move

State lawmakers have cut the benefit before. It resulted in years of poor health outcomes for many.

By Joe Vessey / For The Herald

As we continue to see layoffs and closures from companies and small businesses across a range of industries, it’s likely that high unemployment rates will persist for some time, and with it the loss of health care coverage.

The recent news from Boeing will only add to the region’s pain. Roughly 8.5 percent of all Washingtonians are now unemployed. Health insurance is often tied to employment, so the newly laid-off face the prospect of losing their income and their access to health care; in the midst of a public health crisis.

One of the few health care resources for people without insurance are community health centers. At Community Health Center of Snohomish County, we’ve felt a surge of pride as our clinics provided free covid-19 tests and pivoted our care to telehealth to keep our low-income patients safe. But unfortunately, health centers like ours are in danger of losing valuable government resources that make these services possible.

Because of pandemic-driven losses in state revenue, the Washington state Legislature is considering huge cuts to the state budget. This includes cuts to health care programs like the adult dental benefit for Medicaid patients, which helps low-income patients gain access to oral health services. Last year, Community Health Center of Snohomish County provided more than 86,000 dental visits to patients, 90 percent of whom depend on Medicaid for dental benefits.

Cutting Medicaid adult dental would be a huge mistake that puts the newly unemployed at greater risk from the coronavirus. Oral health is integral to overall health. Untreated oral disease can have serious consequences on chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, both of which make it more likely for a patient to die from covid-19. More than 1 million adults on Medicaid in Washington would lose their dental insurance if the Medicaid adult dental benefit is cut.

During the last recession, the state cut the Medicaid adult dental, and patients are still recovering from the damage it caused. By the time dental coverage was restored in 2014, patients faced a long-term accumulation of severe problems, including long-term pain, broken teeth, tooth abscesses, unnecessary extractions and gum disease. These conditions are extremely painful, expensive and preventable.

Those cuts did not save us money over the long term, as eliminating prevention and early treatment results in higher medical costs and emergency care which often does not adequately treat the dental condition. Washington would also lose out on a large federal match that covers more than 70 percent of the total program costs for the adult dental benefit.

Community health centers rely on government funding and revenue from dental appointments to provide affordable care. Without support, our patients will lose their only access to health care at a time when they need it most.

The state must preserve programs like Medicaid adult dental that give essential health care to people without jobs and insurance. Our patients, our health center, and our community depend on it.

Joe Vessey is chief executive officer of Community Health Center of Snohomish County in Everett.

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