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KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

Missouri legislator supports Medicaid coverage for oral health

Conor Lawless

The Missouri House of Representatives has proposed adding $48 million in federal and state funds to next year’s Medicaid budget to cover adult dental care. Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to the additional $48 million, but with some caveats. The money would only be used to pay for preventative dental care, like maintenance and extraction procedures. Part of the $48 million would also go towards paying dentists more for these procedures. Currently, the state only reimburses dentists up to 35 percent of usual and customary costs.

There is some debate as to whether the $48 million is enough to pay for preventive services and raise rates for dentists. If the Senate and the House can agree on how the funds should be spent, the measure would then go back to both bodies for final approval. It needs to reach the governor’s desk by May 9.   

The proposed amount would give 300,000 current Medicaid recipients some sort of dental coverage, which they desperately need. Representative Nate Walker is from Missouri’s 3rd district. He told me how the proposed funds would restore dental coverage that was cut from the state’s Medicaid program nearly a decade ago.  

What type of action is the state legislature taking to get dental care covered under Missouri Medicaid?

A few years ago - I believe it was back when Matt Blunt was governor - more than 300,000 adult Medicaid recipients were taken off the rolls for oral health benefit care. So the Senate Appropriations Committee has added an additional $48 million of federal and state money to next year’s Medicaid budget for dental care, which I think is important.

The legislature has been pretty selective with what they’re doing with Medicaid these days. I’m surprised that people would be so willing to add to the Medicaid budget for dental health even though I know that’s a very important issue.

This is a subject that has some emotion because a lot of people feel that the Medicaid expansion is tied to Obamacare and Obamacare has not been as popular in the state of Missouri as it has been in other places perhaps. But I was on the House Medicaid Transformation Committee and we met at 8 locations throughout the state and we found that there is a need for Medicaid transformation, Medicaid reform, Medicaid expansion. At every location we heard from people talking about the need for dentistry, oral health, and those kinds of services. And so as a result I think a lot of the members realize now how important dental health is as an overall part of the Medicaid program.

What else do you think could be done at a legislative level to improve oral healthcare in the state of Missouri?

One of the things that really concerns legislators like me and those that serve in the rural areas is that there are not enough people in dental care. So in some of the counties in the state of Missouri I think there’s 12 or 13 counties now that there’s not even a dentist that resides there. And so we have to make sure that we have the programs in place that make sure we get dentists to come to all parts of the state.

Is there anything like that in the works right now?

Oh yeah, we continually work on prevention programs and public education programs. But, as you know, there are so many things out there that compete for dollars in the budget and then also priorities in general. So it’s our job as legislators to work hard to figure out what the priorities are and I think oral health is certainly a priority for the overall management of health for everybody.

Katie Hiler is a former reporter for KBIA, who left at the end of 2014.
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