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Health and Medicine
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Dearth Of Providers, Delays In Authorizations Plague Medicaid Dental Program

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In 2014, Washington’s Medicaid program resumed covering dental care for adults. That was celebrated by advocates for the poor. But on Thursday, a panel of lawmakers will hear about ongoing challenges to that program.

Dr. Eve Rutherford, a dentist in Snohomish, Washington, who has about 30 Medicaid patients, plans to testify before the House Health Care Committee. One of her chief concerns is long wait times to get authorization for dental procedures.

Rutherford recalled a young mother who came to see her.

“She had severe gum disease and all of her front teeth were infected and very loose,”she said.

At the time, Rutherford said it was taking Washington’s Health Care Authority up to six months to approve tooth extractions and replacements. She felt her patient who also had diabetes couldn’t wait.

“Gum disease and diabetes are a very bad mix,” Rutherford said.

So she went ahead and extracted the six front teeth. She then called in a favor from a friend who makes dentures. These days the wait times are shorter, but Rutherford said her message to state lawmakers will be: it’s great Washington’s Medicaid program covers adult dental care, but the program needs some additional investments.

Rutherford serves on a work group that’s advising Washington’s Health Care Authority on access to dental care for Medicaid patients.

She said she would like to take on more Medicaid patients, but the reimbursement she gets from the state doesn’t even cover the cost of her dental hygienist’s time. Rutherford said that’s a key reason why more dentists don’t accept Medicaid patients at all.