Capitol Alert

California faulted for poor access to children’s dental care

Julian Flores, then 4 years old, points to his teeth as he cries in pain at his home the morning of his surgery to undergo 20 root canals in this file photo. His mother, Cheri Flores, had tried for two years to get the authorization from Medi-Cal for the treatment he needed.
Julian Flores, then 4 years old, points to his teeth as he cries in pain at his home the morning of his surgery to undergo 20 root canals in this file photo. His mother, Cheri Flores, had tried for two years to get the authorization from Medi-Cal for the treatment he needed. lsterling@sacbee.com

More than half of the 5.1 million children enrolled in California’s health care program for low-income residents did not receive dental care last year, and some counties may lack the providers to meet patients’ dental needs, according to a Bureau of State Audits review released Thursday.

Five counties with at least 2,000 children in the program, including Amador County, may not have had any active dental providers, and none of the providers was willing to accept new Medi-Cal patients in 11 counties in 2013, the audit found. What’s more, the number of dentists accepting new patients appeared “insufficient” in 16 counties.

The Department of Health Care Services’ shortcomings, including failure to adequately monitor the program, are “putting child beneficiaries at higher risk of dental disease,” State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote in the accompanying letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and California lawmakers.

Howle’s report blames poor provider participation on low reimbursement rates, some of which have not increased since fiscal 2000-01.

The review comes amid new federal and state laws that increase the number of Californians eligible for additional dental services covered by Medi-Cal. Officials estimate the number of child and adult enrollees using dental services could grow to 6.4 million people from 2.7 million.

Health Care Services officials told auditors they agreed with the vast majority of the findings, including recommendations to direct its contractor, Delta Dental, to expand care by contracting with more dentists and to submit annual plans describing how the dental system will improve access in underserved areas.

“The department is committed to ensuring that all of our beneficiaries in California have appropriate access to high-quality care,” said spokesman Adam Weintraub, adding the department will provide regular updates to the auditor regarding its progress.

The report also recommended the department perform annual reimbursement rate reviews and establish criteria for monitoring use and access of the program.

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago

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