Minnesota residents who rely on Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare shouldn’t have to travel 70 miles or more to see a dentist. Or, forgo dental care for themselves or their children altogether because they cannot find a provider who sees patients in either program.
But for years, the two scenarios have too often been a frustrating reality for the 1 in 4 Minnesotan who receives their health care through these two publicly funded health programs. Medical assistance is at the service of low-income adults and families. MinnesotaCare helps those who earn too much to qualify for medical assistance, but not enough to comfortably afford private health insurance.
Fortunately, a breakthrough in the Legislature this year will begin to address the lack of dental access in these otherwise well-regarded programs. The legislative fix will strengthen and standardize dental reimbursement and comes with a reasonable price tag: $ 61 million in costs to the state over four years.
The conditions for participating in the program are also simplified. These reforms are expected to increase the number of dentists who will see people enrolled in the public program. Too many dentists have not done so before due to low reimbursement rates. Together, the programs serve over 1.1 million Minnesotans.
“More than 60% of children covered by Medicaid in Minnesota did not see a dentist in 2016 and 2017. This represents approximately 377,553 children in 2017 alone,” according to the state’s Department of Human Services. Even with dental coverage, many Minnesotans covered by Medicaid go years without seeing a dentist because they can’t get an appointment or don’t have access to providers in their community. In 2016, nearly 30,000 people covered by Medicaid have traveled more than 70 miles to see a dentist. “
In addition, the legislation includes an essential performance criterion. Like many states, Minnesota contracts with private managed care organizations to administer public medical programs.
These companies must redouble their efforts to improve access to dental care. The law sets targets for them. By 2024, at least 55% of children and adults enrolled on an ongoing basis are expected to receive at least one dental visit in the coverage year.
If that reasonable benchmark proves elusive, then the state may consider another option: bypassing managed care organizations and contracting directly with a third-party administrator.
A responsibility like this is overdue, but always welcome. The public pays tax dollars for these programs with the expectation that care will be provided. If managed care organizations fall short, it’s time for a change.
Another improvement in the legislation is to provide periodontal care to adults who were not previously eligible.
Collaboration and hard work played a vital role in achieving a legislative solution. The bipartisan leadership of Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, and Senator Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, is commendable. They chair influential committees and use their expertise to push through the legislation.
Also playing key roles: state dental providers and the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), the agency that oversees both programs. This reflects well on DHS chief Jodi Harpstead that cures have been found under his watch.
Harpstead was appointed to this position in 2019 after the emergence of a financial accounting mess. Dental Access Solution Demonstrates Impressive Bandwidth: Harpstead can solve technical issues the agency needs while working with legislators on broader challenges.
Dental care is essential to good health and when ignored there are downstream costs in the form of expensive emergency care, missed work and, in the case of children, missed school. Minnesota is well served by the conscientious collaboration that has forged these promising solutions.