Healthy Choices

Sutter agrees to extend dental surgery program

Sacramento County’s latest dental-care crisis appears to have been averted for now during a meeting Monday at the Capitol.

Convened by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the gathering brought together community health leaders, representatives from Sutter Medical Center, other care systems, dentists, anesthesiologists and advocates for oral health care policy.

The stakeholders hammered out a short-term solution to ensure that developmentally disabled adults and children have access to oral health care that often requires full anesthesia for the special-needs patients. Some patients with severe autism, for example, are so sensitive that they need to be put under so a dentist can work on their teeth without incident.

The issue arose after Sutter Medical Center officials announced last month that the hospital planned to shut down its dental surgery facilities on July 31, saying they could no longer afford such care due to low Medi-Cal reimbursement rates for low-income and disabled patients. Because laws prevent nonprofit hospitals from denying care to one particular population, Sutter could not keep its dental surgery program open to anyone.

Sutter was the last in a long line of Northern California hospitals to discontinue dental surgery, leaving the medically and emotionally fragile patients with no place to go in the region for oral health care.

But on Monday, Sutter reversed course, agreeing to keep the dental surgery program running at least through September, and possibly longer, Steinberg said. Ultimately, two key issues must be resolved: increasing a low Medi-Cal reimbursement and diversion of the more functional patients to other dental clinics.

Steinberg said he is establishing a new, short-term task force to establish clear protocols defining which special-needs patients need to be seen where.

“There needs to be more information about how to determine the appropriate setting for developmentally disabled patients depending on the severity of their condition,” Steinberg said. “Not everyone who ends up in the hospital needs to be there.”

Dr. James Stevens, president of the California Dental Association, had said Sutter’s initial decision was “clearly an access-to-care crisis for our state’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee