Dental hygienist Christine Edgecomb takes care of a patient at St. Apollonia Dental Clinic. Credit: Courtesy of Norma Desjardins

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Beginning Friday, more than 200,000 low-income Mainers will have access to comprehensive dental care through the state’s public health insurance program.

The new MaineCare dental benefit, which is the result of years of work by advocates, medical and dental providers and lawmakers, means that tens of thousands of Maine residents can now get care that will improve their health, employment and overall wellbeing, and likely save the state money in the long run.

“Dental health is an important part of overall health,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a press release earlier in the week. “Providing preventive and routine dental care will not only improve the health and wellness of hundreds of thousands of Maine people, but it will also save money in the long-run by preventing the need for expensive emergency care.”

Mainers who are enrolled in MaineCare will automatically be enrolled in the new benefit, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. But, they must still find a dental practice that accepts MaineCare (also known as Medicaid) payments. To increase the number of practices that do so, the state is also substantially increasing the reimbursement rates for dental services for MaineCare patients.

The governor included funding in her biennial budget, which was approved on a bipartisan basis by lawmakers this spring, to fund a bill, sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, to implement the expanded dental benefit. This follows legislative approval of a bill in 2019 to expand MaineCare dental coverage that was not funded by lawmakers.

The expansion is expected to cost $45 million over two years, with the bulk of the funding coming from the federal government. This state’s share – estimated to be $13 million — will be largely offset by reductions in state spending on emergency medical services and increased economic activity — much of it in rural parts of the state.

“Being able to afford dental care is going to change the actual well being of so many Mainers,” Kim Hammill, a dental care advocate and clinical social worker from Levant, said in a press release from Maine Equal Justice, one of the groups that advocated for the expanded dental benefit. “The truth is our appearance is attached to income and to our social well being. The investment we are making in dental care will mean more people are able to face the world, to be paid more fairly for their work, and to support themselves with better health and stability.”

Many Mainers put off dental care until it becomes an emergency, often because of cost. Dental problems were the top reason for emergency room visits among Mainers aged 15 to 44 who were uninsured or covered through MaineCare, according to a 2010 study by the Muskie School for Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.

This is an inefficient, and often ineffective, way to provide dental care, especially when caring for someone’s mouth can lessen the risk of other health concerns, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.

Researchers have found that adequate, preventive dental care is linked with fewer hospital admissions, and substantially lower medical costs.

In a 2015 survey by the American Dental Association and Health Policy Institute, nearly half of the low-income respondents in Maine said their teeth and mouth were in only fair or poor conditions. Thirty-seven percent of low-income Maine survey participants said the condition of their teeth affects their ability to interview for a job, which jeopardizes their employment.

“Starting today, over 200,000 more Maine people will be covered and have new access to dental care, an important part of overall health care,” Fecteau said in a press release. “I think about all the people who’ve faced barriers to employment because of their oral health issues. Thanks to their voices, Maine is changing that!”

To find a nearby provider that is already accepting MaineCare, contact MaineCare member services at 1-800-977-6740 or dial 711.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...