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Does IL Make the Grade for Children's Dental Health?

May 24, 2011

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - More than 16 million American children go without seeing a dentist, because their parents can't afford it or state Medicaid programs aren't providing the federally-mandated care. In a new report, the Pew Center on the States says those children are more likely to miss school and wind up needing more costly care.

In Illinois, more than half the children on Medicaid received no dental care in 2009 - an improvement, at least, from ten years ago, when it was closer to 75 percent. So, the report gives Illinois a "B" grade for making progress.

Greg Johnson, executive director of the Illinois State Dental Society, says the state provides good reimbursement rates for preventive services, but for follow-up treatments like fillings, dentists get only 20 cents on the dollar from Medicaid. He thinks Illinois' grade should be much lower.

"'D' or 'F' on that end, because we have some of the lowest reimbursement rates in the country for everything but prevention."

Johnson says the state has passed a law that provides student loan repayments for dentists and hygienists who agree to treat Medicaid patients, but that law has gone unfunded for two years.

While many students get sealants and basic prevention in schools, Johnson says parents often can't find dentists who can afford to take Medicaid patients for follow-up treatments.

"That's great that they're getting prevention, but no-one's doing the real work of the dentistry, doing the fillings, extractions, the root canals, and other things."

Shelly Geshan, director of the Pew Children's Dental Campaign, says that when all the elements of the health reform legislation are in place, more children should get access to dental care, but only if states work to ensure there are more dentists, and more who are willing to see lower-income patients.

"And what that means in real terms is that by 2014, an additional 5.3 million children will have dental coverage. So, that's good, except for the fact that this report card shows that states are basically not ready to serve them."

The Illinois Legislature has passed several bills to get dental care to more children, but the Illinois State Dental Society wants those laws implemented in what it calls a more effective manner.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL