Times of San Diego: Opinion: Crippling Tooth Pain a Reality for Too Many Denti-Cal Recipients

By Karen Becerra

Despite sometimes crippling pain, “Tom,” a Denti-Cal recipient in downtown San Diego, had not seen a dentist in many years. Tom is a low-income senior who has diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, hypertension, depression, anxiety and chronic back pain from lumbar stenosis.

Lack of accessibility to dentists who accept Denti-Cal and high costs associated with Tom’s needs as a special care dental patient resulted in numerous decayed and unrestorable teeth. He required eight extractions, several fillings, a lower partial denture and a full upper denture to replace his missing teeth.

I treated Tom even though it wasn’t easy. The process involved several medical consultations and considerable time helping him understand and consent to the proposed treatment plan. Once treatment began, it was challenging to get Tom properly seated due to his chronic back pain. He frequently coughed, struggled to breathe and required many breaks during treatment.

Karen Becerra
Dr. Karen Becerra

Ultimately, it took nine lengthy appointments to complete all of his dental work. Many appointments had to be canceled due to issues with high blood pressure and anxiety.

Tom has now completed his treatment, he can eat a healthy diet, is free of oral pain for the first time in many years, and more importantly his physical and mental health and well-being have vastly improved.

As CEO and dental director of the nonprofit Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center downtown and also as a Denti-Cal provider, I repeatedly see our dental system fail low-income individuals, particularly those with special care needs like Tom. Issues with accessibility and affordability are key reasons why only 44 percent of children enrolled in the Denti-Cal program saw a dentist in 2013, and why only 26 percent of eligible adults with Denti-Cal coverage saw a dentist in 2014.