Opinion: Working to provide care in Colorado’s ‘dental deserts’


By Deborah L. Foote

A recent Colorado Health Institute report, highlighted on Colorado Public Radio, cited a record-increase in the number of Colorado residents who have dental coverage under Medicaid, and the lack of provider access to meet their dental needs.

With a record 1.1 million people now covered for dental care under Medicaid, it’s true that the “dental desert” has been heating up in Colorado over the last few years. While access to dental providers in rural and low-income areas of Colorado is limited today, oral health advocates in Colorado have been working hard toward solutions that continue to address oral health equity by working to create access to dental care throughout Colorado.

Deborah L. Foote

Deborah L. Foote

There are a number of exciting initiatives recently launched by Colorado’s oral health funders and partners aimed at expanding access to dental care. Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation has launched the Colorado Medical-Dental Integration Project, which aims to reduce the gap by integrating a dental hygienist to provide preventive dental care to children. The dental hygienist will be a part of the care team in 17 Colorado primary medical clinics.

Caring for Colorado Foundation is working to improve access to dental care for under-served children and seniors through a new program entitled SMILES Dental Home. (Spanning Miles in Linking Everyone to Services). The SMILES Project will deploy Registered Dental Hygienists into community settings such as schools, Head Start Centers, assisted-living sites, senior centers and residential and day programs for people with disabilities to provide dental care in the community. The community setting will serve as the dental home where people receive their routine, preventive dental care. Those with treatment needs are linked to a dental office for care. The program is designed to address barriers to care such as transportation, cost, mobility, language, and a lack of providers in rural and low-income communities. Caring for Colorado will fund regions of the state to pilot the SMILES Project starting in 2015.

Also, the Colorado Dental Association launched its Community Dental Health Program to help find and implement collaborative solutions to improve the dental health of urban and rural Colorado communities and build partnerships between communities and their dentists to improve oral health and access to care. One of these projects uses the hub and spoke model where a dental professional visits outlying areas from his or her primary practice on a regular basis to provide care where access is limited.

More than just expanding access to current Medicaid providers, Colorado needs more dental professionals to serve these clients. The State of Colorado, DentaQuest (Colorado’s Medicaid dental benefit administrator) and the Colorado Dental Association are all engaged in recruiting dental providers to the Medicaid program. The Colorado legislature and governor have increased Medicaid dental rates in recent years and another targeted rate increase is making its way through the legislature. Legislation was passed in 2014 to provide financial incentives for dentists to treat more Medicaid enrollees, and we await federal approval to implement.

We are not there yet, but we feel a cool down coming to this “dental desert” as these important initiatives help create more provider access, bringing us closer to our goal to eradicate dental disease in Colorado.

Deborah L. Foote, MPA, is executive director of Oral Health Colorado.

Opinions expressed in Health News Colorado represent the views of the individual authors.

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