Tam Nguyen column: An opportunity to expand dental care for those who need it most | Columnists

Anke Neustadt

Everyone deserves the dignity that comes with a pain-free mouth and a confident smile.

Unfortunately, children don’t get to decide the circumstances in which they’re born. All too often, the foundation of access to quality dental care and good dental habits in their early years, which has a profound impact on their lifelong health and well-being, is lacking.

It certainly was for me. As a young child, I dreaded the dentist. I didn’t know much about taking care of my teeth and needed fillings at nearly every appointment. We traveled more than an hour from our home in the Shenandoah Valley to see a dentist with a high-volume practice. It felt chaotic and confusing to me as a young child whose parents spoke only Vietnamese. My associations with the dentist were crowded waiting rooms, pain, drilling and unfamiliar sounds.

I felt the impact of these experiences between visits, too. At a certain point, I realized I wasn’t smiling, and I was hesitant to talk or laugh because I was embarrassed about showing my teeth.

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It wasn’t until we found a new dentist and orthodontist who accepted kids like me in the Medicaid program — and spoke Vietnamese — that I started to see and feel a change. That sense of comfort, knowing that someone who really cared was looking out for me, changed not just my mouth but my whole outlook on life.

I gained confidence. Although my braces sometimes were uncomfortable, I understood how and why they were working, and could see and feel the progress.

What I didn’t know at the time was, between those early negative experiences and when my family found a new dentist, Virginia revamped its dental Medicaid program. A 2005 change increased reimbursement rates and saw the number of dentists participating in the program double.

This meant better access to essential dental care for kids like me. In just a few years, Virginia went from less than 30% of eligible children accessing dental care to more than half of them.

Receiving the compassionate care that I needed inspired me to pursue my own career in dentistry and to help others. As a dental student at the VCU School of Dentistry — Virginia’s only dental school — I have had a chance to work in the clinic, helping patients who are newly eligible for the adult dental Medicaid benefit. I even have been able to help break down language barriers and translate for patients who speak Vietnamese.

Sadly, I also have seen people with familiar issues. Some of the patients we see at the clinic have traveled an hour or more for care, just as my family did, because they can’t find a local dentist accepting new Medicaid patients. Virginia has one of the lowest participation rates in the country for dentists in the Medicaid program; this is in large part because the reimbursement rates haven’t changed since I was a child in 2005, while inflation and rising costs to provide care have eroded the benefit.

State Sens. George Barker, D-Fairfax, and Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, led a bipartisan group that co-sponsored an amendment in the recently released Senate budget, addressing the growing funding gap for the dental Medicaid program in Virginia. That state funding, matched with federal dollars, represents a huge opportunity to attract more dental providers and expand access to essential dental care.

It is critical funding. When someone can’t access dental care, it impacts their overall health and well-being. What should be routine often turns into a hospital visit for issues that could have been detected early and treated by a dentist at lower cost, while avoiding the negative health and personal impacts of delaying treatment.

We can turn that cycle around if more dentists can see Medicaid patients, especially where there is the greatest need.

After I graduate, I plan to return to the Shenandoah Valley to practice and to see patients through the Medicaid program. It’s an important safety net program for families across Virginia like mine, and, if it’s properly funded, it will continue to be a lifeline for years to come.

I wouldn’t be here without it.

Tam Nguyen is a first-year dental student at the VCU School of Dentistry. Contact him at: [email protected]


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