CALIFORNIA HEALTH REPORT: Denti-Cal Program is Failing Children, But Improvements are Underway

Jenny Kattlove, senior director of programs at The Children’s Partnership, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group, said the new funding is encouraging and could ensure more children in the Denti-Cal program get the early care they need.

Until now, investment in preventative care under Denti-Cal has been very low, the Little Hoover Commission found. Just 14 percent of Denti-Cal’s $1.3 billion budget is spent on preventative care, while 84 percent goes to high-cost procedures such as drilling, pulling teeth and doing crowns and root canals.

“If the Medi-Cal program continues to operate its Denti-Cal system the way it has been, we’re going to be in an even deeper crisis than we already are,” Kattlove said. “We’re going to have children who can’t learn in school, we’re going to have children who are in pain and are missing school, and we’re going to have kids in emergency rooms and having more expensive treatment.”

Part of the answer to providing better preventative dental care to underserved children could come from a new model called the “Virtual Dental Home,” said Kattlove. Under this model, dental hygienists and assistants take dental care to the children, visiting schools, Head Start sites and community centers to provide diagnostic, preventative and early intervention care. The hygienists use technology to communicate virtually with a supervising dentist at a clinic.

A state law passed in late 2014 paved the way for the expansion of the Virtual Dental Home model. Now, The Children’s Partnership and others are pushing to for $4 million of funding in the state’s budget to help make that expansion a reality, Kattlove said.

Kattlove said she is also encouraged by the appointment of Jackson last year, because it’s the first time in decades that there has been a state dental director. Director Jayanth Kumar is leading the development of a state dental plan, with input from stakeholders including The Children’s Partnership, Kattlove said. The plan will take a comprehensive look at the state’s oral health system, identify problems and come up with solutions, she said.

More needs to be done, particularly to raise reimbursement rates for providers, said Kattlove and dentist Reggiardo.

But Kattlove said she is encouraged by what she sees as a growing momentum among state administrators and legislators to fix Denti-Cal.

“You would not see the energy and efforts within the administration and potentially the legislature five or six years ago,” she said. “The legislature and administration have really come to realize that we have a crisis.”

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