If you’re like many Washingtonians, especially those living on low incomes or in rural areas, you may not have seen a dentist in quite some time. That’s because access to routine dental care can be abysmally difficult to obtain if you don’t have the means.
At the Statewide Poverty Action Network,* we consistently hear from community members that although they have federal or state health insurance (such as Apple Health, Washington’s Medicaid program), they cannot find a dentist who will accept their insurance due to the low reimbursement rates that dentists receive from Medicaid.
Kristen, a community member from Seattle, is a first-year law student at the University of Washington and a single mother to her son Brennan. She also has firsthand experience with the struggle of obtaining necessary care for her teeth while also living on a low income. Read her story below, and fill out our survey on your own experience accessing dental care.
“The first low-income dentist I found told me that I had two teeth that needed to be pulled. It was only after I started crying that he said, ‘Well they need root canals and crowns, but that isn’t covered, so we can pull them and get you a partial denture.’ I walked out of his office because my ego would not allow me to get dentures at the age of 30. I made so many phone calls and tried so many low-income options, but I just kept being told my only option was dentures.
“Instead of paying the debt I had incurred while homeless, I saved my tax returns for two years and lived in pain. By the time I had enough saved for the original procedures I needed, I had even more dental work that needed to be done and I ended up needing more funds. Luckily, my additional research led me to a healthcare grant through Washington Women In Need (WWIN). I submitted multiple essays and received $6,000 that combined with my two years of tax returns was enough to cover the costs. Almost three years after that initial visit, I fixed my teeth and got myself out of pain.
“The old system of shoving low-income people towards dentures is still very common. I can’t even count the number of low-income individuals that I’ve met that have had their teeth pulled and dentures set.”
There is a way to expand dental care to underserved communities: by employing dental therapists in clinics and dentists’ offices. In the 2020 Legislative Session, Poverty Action will be working on legislation that allows dental therapists to work throughout the state. Help us pass this bill and let us know – what has been your experience accessing the dental care you need? Your responses will help us show lawmakers how critical dental therapy is for Washington communities.