Cutting Medical Assistance will only increase tax burden
By Mary Wellik and Tom Sitzer
"You have saved my life!" These were the words from a Rochester woman who entered the Salvation Army Good Samaritan Dental Clinic needing immediate relief from overwhelming pain in her mouth.
She works part time and her husband had been laid off six months ago from his full-time job. They have young children, but this pain has risen to the top of her priorities despite the needs of her family.
In the routine prep for her dental appointment, she is found to have dangerously high blood pressure. She is referred to the Good Samaritan Medical Clinic across the hall. She sees a physician and receives medication for hypertension. During the screening process, clinic staff inform her that she and her family are eligible for Medical Assistance.
This family is now in a position to prevent the personal burden and public financial consequences of waiting until a medical crisis drives medical costs unnecessarily high.
The governor’s proposed budget eliminates dental care from the Medical Assistance benefit set. This short-sighted remedy will send uninsured/underinsured people to hospital emergency rooms with abscesses of the mouth and other more serious medical conditions.
The cost of these hospital services will be borne by the public. How do we know this? That was the state of affairs in Rochester in 2004 when the Salvation Army and other local partners developed the Good Samaritan Dental Clinic.
The need for the clinic was clear — to serve uninsured working people and those on public assistance who could not access a private dental provider. Across Minnesota, communities were identifying the same health care gap. Those with dental insurance were regularly receiving preventive care. People on public assistance and the working poor without insurance were losing days of work due to pain, and losing teeth due to poor dental hygiene.
Annually, nearly 1,300 patients are served by 168 Good Samaritan Dental Clinic volunteers — dentists, hygienists, dental assistants and others. Do their patients get full dental care? No, the demand is so great, these volunteers are only able to address the top priority of the dental clinic: fill or extract teeth for people experiencing dental pain.
Half of the clinic annual expenses is funded by Medical Assistance reimbursement. The benefits of this service are to alleviate intense pain and prevent major medical consequences, put people back to work and school, and help some people learn what many of us take for granted: how to care for one’s teeth to prevent future problems.
Across Minnesota, communities are providing services that improve the dental health of the poor because we know dental health problems underlie many serious physical health problems. For the taxpayer, it is a sensible use of public health care funds.
Eliminating the dental health benefit from Medical Assistance is not a wise move. There are several proposals in the Legislature to provide limited dental services to the working poor and those on public assistance.
It is essential that we address these dental problems in a large, underserved part of our population to prevent unnecessary financial and productivity losses. Encourage your legislators to contact the Salvation Army Good Samaritan Dental Clinic and other Minnesota dental providers for the poor to learn firsthand what an important difference early intervention can make for the patient and the taxpayer.
When it comes to Minnesota’s fiscal priorities, prevention of serious dental problems is a good investment.
Mary Wellik and Dr. Thomas Sitzer are members of the Salvation Army Advisory Board. Sitzer, a Rochester pediatric dentist, is the Good Samaritan Dental Director. Wellik, Olmsted County Public Health Director, chairs the Salvation Army Health Clinic Advisory Committee.