California Health Report: Now That They Have Dental Insurance, California’s Low-Income Adults Must Find a Dentist That Accepts it






By Ron Shinkman

After nearly a decade of cuts and incomplete coverage, Californians enrolled in the state’s low-income dental program have full coverage this year.

But whether there will actually be enough dentists willing to accept the low-reimbursement rates and red tape often attached to the Denti-Cal program remains to be seen.

Denti-Cal provides dental services to roughly 14 million children and adults statewide. But coverage for the 7 million adults enrolled was hobbled for years following the 2007 economic recession.

Services were reduced to little more than tooth extractions in 2009. Lawmakers restored coverage for more basic services, such as fillings and x-rays, in 2014. But only this year did coverage for critical services, such as root canals and partial dentures, return.

“This is a big deal,” said John Luther, chief dental officer for Western Dental. Western Dental is the biggest Denti-Cal provider in California, with more than 190 offices statewide. About 10 to 12 percent of Western’s 2.5 million annual patient encounters involve Denti-Cal enrollees.

Dental coverage is tied to other health outcomes as well. Luther noted that poor gum health is a chronic inflammatory condition and makes diseases such as diabetes more difficult to control. He believes the restoration of dental benefits will be a significant boost to the overall health of Medi-Cal enrollees over the long run.

Full Denti-Cal costs about $1.3 billion a year—about 1 percent of the budget for Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income health program.