For more than 180,000 Hawaii residents, getting routine dental care is simply out of reach. For the past decade, adults who rely on the Hawaii Medicaid program for their health insurance have had one option for insurance-covered dental care – wait until it’s an emergency and get the tooth pulled.

Currently, adults with Medicaid receive only emergency dental services. The result is unnecessary pain and suffering and a hefty price tag. The result of a decade without adult dental coverage is alarming.

In 2012, Medicaid paid $4.8 million for 1,691 adults who sought emergency room visits for preventable oral health problems, according to the “Department of Health, Hawaii Oral Health: Key Findings” report.

We believe this is a missed opportunity for early detection, treatment and better overall health. To encourage people to take care of their oral health, my company, AlohaCare is giving adults with Medicaid the option of preventive care. Starting Jan. 1, 2019, AlohaCare will cover basic dental services to adult members eligible for Medicaid as their primary health insurance.

By voluntarily absorbing the cost of an annual dental exam, biannual cleanings and fluoride treatment, two bitewing X-rays and one filling or non-emergency extraction, we hope to help adults with Medicaid get into a dentist chair before they have a dental crisis. AlohaCare members will automatically receive this benefit.  October is the open enrollment period for Medicaid.

Like other Hawaii-founded and governed nonprofit organizations, we embrace our ohana, the community, and we would like all of Hawaii’s people to have access to whole-person care. Fortunately, Medicaid already provides comprehensive dental care for keiki, and kupuna have Medicare Advantage coverage.

The connection between oral health and the health of the entire body is well established. Clinical studies show that without proper dental care pregnant mothers are at higher risk for having premature births and underweight babies. Bacteria in the mouth can get into the bloodstream and cause a heart infection called endocarditis.

Some mental health medications cause dry mouth, putting people at risk for tooth and gum disease. Diabetes can make people more susceptible to serious gum disease, such as gingivitis or worse, periodontitis.

These are all good reasons it is in the community’s best interest to offer Medicaid adults basic dental services.

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About the Author

  • Laura Esslinger
    Laura Esslinger has been chief executive officer of AlohaCare, the third largest health plan in the state, since December 2016. She is a veteran health plan executive with broad and diverse experience in government programs, including Medicaid waiver design, managed healthcare for culturally diverse communities, and long term services and supports for dual eligible populations.