Although the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has helped approximately 22.8 previously uninsured people gain medical coverage, hundreds of thousands in the United States still lack access to critical care. Uninsured and underinsured people are faced with astronomically high medical bills, and the ACA has worked to address this broader issue directly. One specific area of human health which goes largely unnoticed, however, is the lack of affordable high quality dental care for those people who do not have the financial means for insurance coverage and/or access to services.
The expansion of Medicaid in 31 states and D.C. is primarily responsible for the large number of previously uninsured people who have gained coverage since the ACA became law in 2014. Medicaid, however, generally does not cover preventative care meaning that dental care is only covered when it intersects with a patient’s larger medical need. According to the National Association of Dental Plans, 126.7 million people in the U.S. lack dental coverage, and of that number only an estimated 17.7 million could gain coverage through some state’s expansion of Medicaid. Only 4.5 million adults are expected to gain extensive dental benefits through Medicaid and only 800,000 adults will gain dental benefits through the health exchanges.
Despite a direct and documented knowledge of the high need for affordable dental care, most free clinics and safety net providers cannot offer these services due to their tight operating budgets. One free clinic in West Virginia, however, has made it a priority to bring dental care to an affordable setting for the uninsured, underinsured, and low-income members of their community.
Wheeling Health Right in Wheeling, West Virginia, has been working on a year-long project to add dental health to the list of high-quality services they provide at no cost to uninsured and underinsured patients. The project, according to Executive Director Kathie Brown, was driven by need. Until recently, uninsured adults in Wheeling could receive free dental care at one of the city’s public school-based health centers. However, with school security and children’s safety in mind, the city decided that public schools were no longer appropriate venues for adults to receive dental care. This, of course, created a gap in the health services available to Wheeling’s most vulnerable populations. For a time, many dentists in the Wheeling area agreed to see uninsured people at no cost to the patient, although, as Brown describes, this did not allow for the continuity of care her free clinic patients needed.
With the help of public and private grant money, Wheeling Health Right has identified space and begun construction for the dental clinic within their existing free clinic facility. They have engaged local dentists who may be interested in volunteering some of their time to provide free dental care with seven already officially committed. In addition, the clinic has been working with manufacturers of dental products to secure lower prices for their charitable program. They plan to offer dental services to their existing pool of uninsured patients with the hope of eventually expanding it to insured patients who simply lack dental insurance.
This project has been put into motion by a local organization that identified a need in their community and sought a way to change things. AmeriCares is proud to support safety net health care organizations like Wheeling Health Right that are making issues of public health personal.
The dental clinic at Wheeling Health Right is scheduled to open in early 2016.
As the nation’s largest provider of donated medical aid to the U.S. health care safety net, AmeriCares works with over 800 free clinics and health centers in all 50 states. Supported by the GE Foundation, our U.S. Programs help partner clinics to increase capacity, provide comprehensive care, improve health outcomes and reduce costs for patients. Our vision is for every person in this country to have access to affordable and high quality health care regardless of their ability to pay. Wheeling Health Right in Wheeling, West Virginia is one of our safety net partners.