Dentists far less likely to accept kids on Medicaid, group finds

Children with public insurance like Medicaid are far less likely to receive urgent dental care than their counterparts with private insurance such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, recent “undercover” research has found in Illinois.

The study, published in Pediatrics, had six research assistants call 85 dental practices in Illinois. The researchers posed as the mothers of a non-existant 10-year-old child with an urgent injury to a front tooth. If not treated, the hypothetical problem carried risk of infection, cosmetic concerns, pain and other serious considerations.

Half the dental practices called were enrolled in Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP). Overall, 36.5% of children enrolled in CHIP or Medicaid were able to get an emergency appointment, versus 95.4% of privately insured kids. Only 7% of the 36.5% of publicly insured kids were on Medicaid.

Even among Medicaid-enrolled dentists, only 68% of the “moms” were able to secure appointments for their children, versus 100% of the moms who purported to have private insurance. One of the study’s co-authors had this to say about the discouraging numbers:

“That’s a huge difference,” said study co-author Dr. Karin Rhodes, director of the division of emergency care policy research at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. “This gives irrefutable numbers. I think there’s a real disparity between oral health and traditional medical care in this country.”

Rhodes noted that in the study, money talked:

“I think many dentists shy away from emergency care because they have to follow up” when they know they may not be equitably reimbursed, Rhodes said. “I also found it disturbing a lot of dentists who turned down patients … said they were willing to see the child if the mother would pay cash.”

Researchers say that without better funding for public programs, the disparity will persist.