Cuts Extract Mass Health Dental Benefits From Budget

As part of Governor Deval Patrick’s broad, expansive plan to cut more than $800 million from next years state budget, Mass Health dental benefits for adults is no longer being provided.

The cuts to the Mass Dental program will eliminate fillings, treatment for gum disease, and dentures. This last measure is particularly troublesome for low-income seniors who rely on dentures as an integral component of their daily nutrition. Fillings, one of the other primary aspects of the Mass Dental program being eliminated, are crucial in preventing the spread of dental decay and disease.

With these cuts taking affect, the only remaining coverage for members of the Mass Health adult dental program is for check-ups, cleanings, and extractions. Christine Keeves is director of the Massachusetts Oral Advocacy Taskforce, a branch of the organization Health Care For All: Massachusetts. The Oral Advocacy Task Force led an effort to halt the budget cuts to the MassHealth Dental programs. In an article posted to the Health Care for All website on May 14th, 2010, Keeves asserts: “Of all MassHealth benefits, dental is the most universal- it provides vital health coverage to nearly 700,000 people in Massachusetts.” In total, according to this same site, the cuts to Mass Dental will cut benefits for “around 700,000 people, including more than 120,000 seniors and more than 180,000 disabled individuals with HIV/AIDS.”

Dentist Barry W. Aston of Hudson, Massachusetts has argued the Mass Dental program played a crucial role preventing costly trips to the hospital due to dental emergencies, and has even written articles about the issue in the Metrowest Daily News and other local publications.

“I will be losing around $60,000 with the cuts to MassDental, so I have a personal interest vested in this,” Aston said. “But that truly isn’t my main beef. What I care most about are the thousands of special needs patients who are going to be losing very important care as a result of these cuts. It’s not fair.”

However, dentists aren’t the only ones speaking out against the Governor’s proposed cuts. Several prominent Massachusetts legislators have lobbied against the cuts in the weeks leading up to their enactment. One of the first politicians to make a concentrated effort to prevent these cuts from being put in place was State Representative John Sciback, who filed an amendment in March to keep the current Mass Dental program in place.

“The bottom line is if people don’t get consistent dental services, the state loses more money,” said Sciback, emphasizing the that these cuts will not only negatively impact all those treated under Mass Health, but also the State itself.
Research and statistics done by the Oral Health Advocacy Task Force Of Massachusetts support Sciback’s assertion that these cuts are in fact retroactive in doing what they are designed to do: save money. According to a recent press release from the Task Force, “the long term cost of eliminating adult dental care is 2.5 times more expensive than the cost of providing care.”

Around 700,000 Massachusetts citizens will be impacted by these cuts to Mass Dental. According to Representative Sciback, within this large group, there are demographics and groupings of people for whom the cuts will be particularly problematic.

“These cuts will affect everybody on Mass Health. But within this there are going to be groups disproportionately affected; such as people with disabilities and low-income citizens,” said Sciback.

Like Sciback, State Senator Harriette Chandler recently filed an amendment seeking to preserve and protect the program as it is. The amendment gained significant support amongst various legislators and figures within Boston’s political and social communities.

Deborah Banda, Director of the Massachusetts branch of the AARP, is among those who have voiced their support for this amendment. According to a statement released on May 26th, 2010 by the Massachusetts branch of the AARP Banda stated that she felt this amendment was the only chance to prevent the cuts from being enacted at the beginning of July.

“Let me be frank: Proper dental care, including dentures, is not a luxury, for older persons, in particular, they are key to getting proper nutrition and staying healthy,” Banda said in the statement released by the Massachusetts branch of the AARP. “If the Chandler amendment does not pass, more than 700,000 adults, including 130,000 seniors in Massachusetts will lose access to regular dental services.”

Before the cuts to the Mass Dental program took affect the Massachusetts Senate debated on a wide range of issues, including Senator Chandler’s amendment to preserve the MassHealth adult dental program as it is. Unfortunately for hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts’s citizens, the amendment was unable to garner enough support within the Senate and was eliminated.

While low-income seniors will be the group most significantly impacted by these cuts; they will also have a profound impact upon the thousands of homeless in the state, many of which benefited greatly from the MassHealth dental program that is being eliminated. As mentioned earlier, the program will no longer cover fillings and procedures such as root canals and bridges. However the program will still cover extractions. For the homeless, this means a return to the old adage: “If it hurts, pull it.” Now teeth that could be saved through root canals or other procedures will simply be yanked.
Furthermore, without fillings, low-income citizens and the homeless will be at a drastically heightened risk of dental decay and further disease, as fillings are the main technique for stopping and preventing the spread of decay and disease. These cuts to the Mass dental cut will exacerbate the health problems the homeless face within their day-to-day lives.

Representative Sciback discussed how these cuts represent yet another obstacle standing in the way of homeless citizen’s ascensions from poverty.

“It is definitely going to affect the problem [homelessness]. It’s going to make it much more difficult for the homeless to escape the cycle they are caught in. if they are trying to find work, or trying to find job training, it’s going to be much more difficult if the mouth looks awful,” said Sciback. “The homeless are really caught between a rock and a hard place with this. Life for them was difficult before these cuts. Losing these services is devastating.”

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