Medicaid Dental Coverage Doesn't Reduce ER Visits, Study Finds

A new study finds that Medicaid dental coverage alone isn't enough to stop preventable dental emergencies.

Expanded Medicaid dental coverage does not meaningfully impact the rate of emergency room admissions for non-traumatic dental conditions, according to a new study.

The study, published in Health Affairs, looked at emergency department data from 29 states in 2010. It found urban areas accounted for more than 90% of all non-traumatic dental emergency visits.

In rural areas, those visits seemed to decline when dental provider supply was high. However, no such correlation was found in urban areas. Moreover, even in states with expanded Medicaid coverage for dental care, the rate of emergency visits remained unchanged. Thus, the study’s authors suggest that even when states expand Medicaid coverage, patients often have difficulty finding providers who accept Medicaid and getting appointments.

Maria Raven, MD, FACEP, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and the study’s senior author, noted that more than 2% of all emergency room visits are now related to non-traumatic dental conditions.

“The large number of visits to ERs for dental conditions that could be treated in outpatient settings is proof that our healthcare system treats dental care differently than other preventative care,” said Raven, in a press release. “…Dental insurance should not be a luxury available only to the rich; it should be considered a necessity for everyone. Unfortunately, dental insurance for the poor is an exception rather than the rule.”

According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, about 8.3 million individuals are now eligible for dental coverage under the Affordable Care Act. However, in some states, fewer than 1 in 5 dentists accept patients with Medicaid. On top of that, ACEP noted that some 45 million Americans live in regions with a dentist shortage.

“It is likely that ERs will continue to provide care to individuals without adequate access to office-based dental care unless new dental service delivery models are developed to expand access in underserved areas, and unless more dental providers begin to accept Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act,” Raven said.

The study can be accessed online here.