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Dental Work in the ER: The MA Pull to Extract It

PHOTO: Fueled by new research, oral health care advocates in the Commonwealth are continuing efforts to restore coverage for dentistry in clinics and dentists' offices for patients who have nowhere to turn but often-over-stretched hospital emergency rooms. Photo credit: Erik Christensen/Wikipedia.

PHOTO: Fueled by new research, oral health care advocates in the Commonwealth are continuing efforts to restore coverage for dentistry in clinics and dentists' offices for patients who have nowhere to turn but often-over-stretched hospital emergency rooms. Photo credit: Erik Christensen/Wikipedia.
June 16, 2014

BOSTON – Since severe cuts were made in 2010 to MassHealth adult dental benefits, more Commonwealth residents have turned to emergency rooms, where the pain from tooth and gum ailments is addressed, but the cause often goes untreated.

A new study by Boston University's School of Dental Medicine shows that dental related ER visits for adults increased by 14 percent and the costs of those visits went up 27 percent.

State Sen. Harriette Chandler has worked to restore coverage for fillings – at dental clinics and health care facilities, not ERs.

She's now backing a budget amendment that would restore coverage for dentures.

"Right now it's in conference committee,” she says. “They're trying to reconcile the House and the Senate's versions of the budget, and that has to be on the governor's desk by July first."

Oral health advocates say lack of treatment options leads to the Commonwealth wasting millions of dollars on emergency room care for dental issues.

Courtney Chelo, Oral Health Policy coordinator at Health Care For All Massachusetts, says people with no option other than an ER cannot count on any real dentistry.

"They're not necessarily getting into a dental chair and having whatever problem directly addressed,” she explains. “They're just getting an antibiotic and a pain reliever that's sort of a temporary, stopgap measure.”

Dr. Judith Jones, one of the authors of the BU study, says the data, which was gathered at BU Medical Center, shows among the highest percentage increases in ER dental visits were those by minorities and people receiving charity care, Medicaid and Medicare.

"Most of the studies that have documented this have suggested that it's young adults who have the largest increases,” she adds. “But what we found was when you looked on a percentage basis, it was really older adults and seniors who had the largest increases."

Chandler underlines the importance of dentures.

"We've gone a long time without being able to cover dentures,” she stresses. “And if they no longer fit, people don't wear them any longer, and these people are suffering because they really can't eat quite the same way. They're eating mush."


Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - MA