Roughly a year into the re-implementation of dental coverage for adults under Medicaid in South Carolina, visits to free dental clinics haven’t showed signs of slowing.
Phil Latham, executive director of the South Carolina Dental Association, said the program’s once-a-year clinic in Columbia still served roughly 1,500 patients, which he said has been the average since they started the clinics in 2009.
“It’s done by the staff here at the association, and we’re a very small staff, so it’s a lot of work as you can imagine,” Latham told Palmetto Business Daily. “We do one every August.”
David Wolle, the chief operating officer of KOS Services, which manages Family Dental, said the expansion has caused a “meaningful” increase in patients coming to their clinics. The expansion has been a success, he said, particularly for patients that have been putting off very basic care, such as fillings or extractions, that have been causing pain.
Family Dental, which has clinics in Greenville, Rock Hill and Columbia, is an affiliate of Dental Dreams, a provider of dental services with 65 locations in 11 states.
“We’re not talking about luxuries here, like people doing veneers or implants,” Wolle told Palmetto Business Daily. “We’re talking about getting people out of pain — some really overdue, very, very basic dentistry.”
South Carolina originally offered dental care to adults who qualified for Medicaid, but pulled the coverage in 2011 as the recession brought budgetary woes. The coverage was re-instituted beginning Dec. 1, 2014, with beneficiaries receiving up to $750 in dental care benefits for each benefit year. Benefit years begin in July.
Wolle said Family Dental's clinics saw an initial rush as adults moved to use the benefits in the seven-month window before they reset. In the past, he said, demand has slowed as it gets further from July.
“We have to sometimes wait to get people in, but nothing outrageous,” Wolle said. “In the early days there was a little bit of a backup.”
Wolle suspects, however, that the program can still grow. A number of patients, he said, don’t even know the benefits are available to them. “Some of these people are suffering, and they don’t even know they’re covered,” he said.
In addition to raising awareness, he said that the program could also benefit by extending it to at least some cosmetic dentistry. Many, he said, require dentures or crowns that could prevent them from getting better jobs that could, in theory, bring those people off of the Medicaid rolls.
“Some people, they don’t have teeth, or they’re missing a lot of teeth, and it’s hard for some people to get a job. It doesn’t make a good impression,” he said. “Covering dentures and public education, that would certainly help the public a lot.”
For now, the expansion of the program has not resulted in any plans by the South Carolina Dental Association to scale back or cancel its free clinics. But for many, it appears, the changes are at least beginning to bring a post-recession relief to some of the state’s most desperate.
“It’s made a huge difference in people’s lives,” Wolle said. “When people are living in pain, using over the counter remedies, that sort of thing — it’s been nice to deal with people’s needs.”
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