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ER visits for dental care on the rise, but some states are finding ways to address the problem

Written by Diane Archer

Data from the American Dental Association reveals that emergency room visits for dental care more than doubled in the 12 years between 2000 and 2012, according to USA Today. Largely because neither Medicare nor standard private health insurance covers dental care, some 2.2 million people ended up in the emergency room because of tooth pain in 2012. But, some states have developed innovative solutions to reduce emergency room visits for dental care.

A report by the American Dental Association shows that in the majority of cases that people visit the emergency room for dental care, they should be visiting the dentist instead. Nearly 24 percent of emergency room visits for dental care are non-urgent and another 54.8 percent are semi-urgent.

People often avoid going to the dentist because they lack insurance coverage and don’t want to pay out of pocket for dental care, which can be very expensive. Most insurance does not cover dental care. Medicare never covers dental care. And the Affordable Care Act only covers dental care for children, not for adults. Medicaid pays for some dental services, but what Medicaid covers depends on what state you live in.

And, most states do not allow dental therapists to provide dental care, even though the data suggests that they can provide several services safely and well and at lower costs. The American Dental Association has blocked dental therapists from providing dental services in all states but Alaska.

Maine, Michigan and Virginia have developed innovative solutions to reduce the number of emergency room visits for dental care by as much as 72 percent. One Michigan county created a volunteer dental force for patients with low incomes. In Maine, several hospitals are piloting a program that gives patients a painkiller when they present at the emergency room and then refers them to a clinic for treatment. A Virginia pilot program developed an in-hospital urgent dental care clinic to treat patients and reduce costs.

Emergency rooms must treat anyone who visits, regardless of whether they have insurance or are able to pay for their care. But, they generally only treat the dental pain and do not deliver dental services. As a result, they often end up having repeat visits from people with dental pain. And, by some estimates, the cost for emergency room services is three times more than the cost of a dental visit. For sure, it’s important to choose your emergency room carefully ahead of time, if you have a choice of them, so you get the best care and keep your costs down.

Here are some ways to get free and low-cost dental care.  Or, contact your local area agency on aging to find out about resources in your community.


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