TARGET 8: Thousands statewide still have no access to dental care

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COLUMBIA - Having clean teeth and a good smile are important parts of a person's appearance, but for some people it's almost impossible to see a dentist. Close to 250,000 Missourians on Medicaid have no access to dental care. 

For some, it's a life or death situation. 

Jenni Lanning said she has an infection in her gums and jaw that has gotten so bad that she is in and out of emergency rooms.

She said she's tried just about everything to get proper dental care.

“We have looked at all of the options, I have called all of the places, all of the people, I have filled out paperwork, different supposed dental health grants. I have Medicaid, I have Medicare,” Lanning said.  

She said she had not been getting regular checkups because she couldn't afford the care.

“One cavity can turn into the worst thing ever, and it doesn’t even have to hurt that bad. It didn’t at first, and then the next thing you know they’re telling me, 'This is going to your heart and when it gets there you will die,'” Lanning said. 

Lori Henderson, a dentist in Columbia said, “If you have to keep putting off and putting off the treatment, that’s when things start falling apart. Because decay is just bacteria in the tooth, and that infection continues to spread and the teeth become fragile and break.”

A Missouri Health Department report in 2014 said there are about 60,000 emergency department visits each year due to non-traumatic dental complaints among Missouri residents. The visits cost approximately $17.5 million per year based on national estimates. 

Right now, Missouri's Medicaid program only reimburses dental services for Medicaid recipients who are children, pregnant, blind, or living in nursing homes. 

A spokesperson for MO HealthNet, Missouri's Medicaid program, said, "Currently, the MO HealthNet program covers medically necessary, dental benefits for adults for treatment of trauma of the mouth, jaw, teeth or other contiguous sites as a result of injury; treatment of a disease/medical condition without which the health of the individual would be adversely affected."

If this statement is true, then wouldn't Lanning who is in and out of emergency rooms for mouth and jaw infection be able to get health care? 

KOMU 8 News reached out to MO HealthNet, which said it would not provide information on specific cases, but Lanning allowed KOMU 8 News to pass along her information for a direct response. 

“I’m looking at not being able to make it, and I should be able to with Medicaid and Medicare. You know, and it’s just, it’s ridiculous. It’s not fair at all. It’s not fair for me, it’s not fair for any of these other people that have to do it,” Lanning said. 

Even finding dental care for other Medicaid recipients is difficult. 

A search for Medicaid dental care on MO HealthNet in Boone County yields nine results, but only one dental office in Boone County said it offers services to Medicaid patients. Those dentists account for five of the nine results.

Cherry Hill Dental is on the list, but after calling the office, KOMU 8 News learned it doesn't offer Medicaid services anymore and has repeatedly asked to be taken off the list.

Henderson said her practice used to offer Medicaid services but had to stop. She said Missouri Medicaid reimburses at a rate that is far below what the overhead of running a private practice is.

“Right now Medicaid in Missouri is underfunded, which is reflected in the fact that only 11 percent of the dentists in Missouri are part of the Medicaid system,” Henderson said. 

Back in 2005, then-Governor Matt Blunt made a round of Medicaid budget cuts, and it's been a decade since low-income adults have had access to dental care.

Lawmakers are now making strides to bring back dental care, but press secretary for Gov. Nixon, Scott Holste, said there's a catch. 

The legislature funded Medicaid dental in the current fiscal year through a dedicated tax amnesty fund, and the amount of money that’s available through that fund is not going to be known until after the amnesty period ends November 30.

Holste said there may be no money available for Medicaid dental funding at all. That's because there are several other programs that the legislature said would be funded through the amnesty program, and the determination on funding all those different programs will be made later.

“The administration will make a decision on funding the programs in a manner that’s fiscally responsible, but we can’t do that until after the amount of money is known and available," Holste said. 

Lanning made a GoFundMe page in hopes that people will donate money to help her get oral surgery.

“Hopefully I can help myself, but if nothing else I can help other people and make this stop so nobody has to go through this anymore," Lanning said.