Filling a gap for the disadvantaged

By ANNE TRAUTNER | June 23, 2021 | SIDEBAR

The Albrecht Free Clinic in West Bend gets calls daily from Medicaid patients in need of dental care.

Callers are often desperate. They have been searching for a dentist who will accept Medicaid but have been turned away repeatedly.

Patients with Medicaid coverage do not qualify for treatment at the clinic, which provides free medical and dental care for uninsured individuals who live or work in Washington County.

Clinic staff instead refer Medicaid patients to the nonprofit Community Smiles Dental in Menomonee Falls. While it is the closest dental provider that accepts Medicaid, patients often have to travel outside of their home county. For some, transportation is a barrier.

“If you have Medicaid, you have access to medical care and technically access to dental care, but there isn’t a dentist in Washington County or Ozaukee County who accepts Medicaid,” says Ruth Henkle, Albrecht’s executive director.

“A lot of individuals have no place to go when they have an infection, so they go to the emergency department because they won’t be turned away,” she says.

These visits come with a cost. In 2015, there were more than 41,000 emergency room visits in Wisconsin for preventable oral health conditions, and the visits had a total cost of nearly $27.5 million in 2012, according to a Badger Institute policy brief.

“But all they are receiving in the emergency department is a medication for the infection,” Henkle says. “It is still not fixing the tooth. Then they go without any dental care for years and years. By the time that they do get dental care, many teeth can’t be saved.”

Creating the dental therapy profession in Wisconsin would improve oral health for disadvantaged populations and create jobs without additional costs to taxpayers.

Anne Trautner is a freelance writer living in Washington County, Wisconsin. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

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