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State Called to Build ‘Bridge to Healthy Smiles’

Friday, March 06, 2009
The Urban Coaster
by James Ginderske

An often criticized failing of the American Health System is its treatment of dental and oral health care issues. In Illinois, the problem is compounded by an underfunded Medicaid reimbursement system, along with access to dental care, which is often linked exclusively to ability to pay.

Dental care as a sub-specialty is something of a medical oddity. While undeniably a component of the greater health care system, dental care is treated as a distinct category by both government and private insurance plans. This results in entirely different rate structures and coverage limits, and critics say, also prevents meaningful integration of oral health issues into holistic health planning.

For many, dentistry is a straightforward equation: either one can afford to pay and can obtain care, or not, in which case the options rapidly become very limited. While the cost of preventive care is usually inexpensive, costs can quickly balloon if restorative care is needed.

Coupled with the fact that often the recognition of the need for expensive intervention is accompanied by extreme pain and discomfort, it’s little wonder that many patients select the only options realistically left to them – various pain relief schemes, “dealing with it,” and ultimately extractions.

A movement is underway in Illinois that seeks to address these issues, hoping for the first time in years to fundamentally increase the level of dental resources available to patients in underserved areas throughout the State, of which Rogers Park is one. The effort, called the “Bridge to Healthy Smiles Campaign,” is being billed as a long overdue and pragmatic series of steps to improve local access while dealing with structural issues that affect dental care statewide.

The campaign includes three components: 

  • Open ten new dental clinics to bring dental care to the 60 percent of the State’s counties (including Cook) currently classified as underserved. 
  • Fund the existing “Loan Repayment Assistance Act,” and further establish incentives to encourage new dentists to practice in underserved areas in exchange for student loan forgiveness. (The average new dentist now leaves school with $160,000 in outstanding loans.)
  • Raise the State’s Medicaid Reimbursement Rate, currently one of the lowest in the nation, from 46 percent of costs to 64 percent to incentivize dentists to accept All Kids and Medicaid-insured patients. 

Locally, an aggressive effort has been mounted by a coalition of organizations to assess the need in Rogers Park for additional oral health services, should the opportunity to obtain new resources become available. 

The group, the Rogers Park Oral Health Care Advisory Committee, includes Howard Area Community Center, Heartland Alliance, Neighbors for a Healthy Rogers Park, Rogers Park Community Council, Loyola University, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, and Erie Family Health Center. The group is moving swiftly to complete a substantial survey component as part of their research.

“If you don’t quantify the need, you make it easy for politicians and other policy makers to ignore the problem,” said one surveyor, who wanted to remain anonymous. “But once you demonstrate the extent of a crisis you can begin to talk about how to address it.”

The total cost of the combined measures is estimated at $94 million. Proponents argue that historically not tying increases in dental reimbursements to other medical reimbursement adjustments has resulted in an environment that forces dentists who treat medicaid-eligible patients to operate at a substantial, and often unsustainable economic loss.

The situation was made worse in 2002 when the Illinois General Assembly cut dental reimbursements by 7 percent to balance that year’s budget.

The movement is steadily gaining steam among various grass-roots organizations and local governments. As of March 1, a total of nineteen different groups have joined the Bridge to Healthy Smiles campaign.

A press conference was held on February 2, 2009 by the Illinois Faith Based Association, along with Illinois State Representative Elizabeth Hernandez (the Bill’s sponsor) and Rep. David Miller, DDS in support of the Bridge to Healthy Smiles initiative. Also present were two parents, Dominique Johnson and Susan Krawcyk, who explained the harsh impact the current limitations have had on their children. 

Association President Reverend Walter Turner made a firm commitment to the initiative, saying: “Oral health care affects children and adults across this state in a way that can have life-long consequences.

We witness and hear about devastating stories from families who have nowhere to turn. We can no longer afford to be a victim of inaction in Springfield so we will continue this campaign until our voices are heard and there is equitable dental care for all.”

Information on this legislation can be found on the website For more information about the Rogers Park Oral Health Care Advisory Committee, contact Monica Dillon at (773) 262-6622, ext. 108.

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