Op-ed: Now that Medicaid includes dental the real work begins

This op-ed was originally published in the Union Leader.

By Tom Raffio & Vivial Vasallo

IN JULY, the New Hampshire state legislature finally expanded Medicaid to include dental benefits for adults. This critical milestone that prioritizes dental care — the product of a 25-year, bi-partisan effort — was supported by 91% of the state’s adults. It is a moment to celebrate a win for New Hampshire’s nearly 85,000 Medicaid beneficiaries, who now have access to comprehensive oral health care that will improve health outcomes. It will also reduce emergency room visits and save taxpayer dollars on health care.

This is a huge step forward and a critical extension of health benefits for many of our most vulnerable neighbors. While it’s obvious that access to dental care can reduce issues such as cavities, gum disease and tooth loss, oral health also plays an important role in overall health. For instance, poor oral health contributes to high blood pressure and potential pregnancy and birth complications. Treating oral health complications could also lead to a decreased risk of stroke and diabetes, which are leading causes of death in New Hampshire.

So now the work begins. Health care leaders, payors, providers and organizations across the region met last week in Manchester to discuss solutions for the major health care challenges facing our state, including how to deliver adult dental care under Medicaid. We all must work together to ensure that those who are newly covered can access care, despite administrative, reimbursement and workforce issues that create barriers.

We know that, for example, accepting Medicaid beneficiaries as patients can pose reimbursement challenges and paperwork burdens for some dental practices. Additionally, tens of thousands of new patients coming into the system means demand for oral health care will increase, so we must continue working to provide support to the current workforce and to ensure that new dentists, hygienists and assistants enter the field.

There are 906 dentists and 1,593 dental hygienists in New Hampshire, and we’re lucky to have deep relationships with many providers who could serve those with dental benefits through Medicaid. Just as we were proud to serve as a resource for legislators during the expansion process, Northeast Delta Dental (NEDD) is committed to strengthening and expanding the dental workforce to meet the increased demand for care from newly covered Medicaid members.

NEDD believes that statewide efforts to support the existing workforce and to expand scholarship opportunities — such as the Workforce Behind the Workforce Act of 2022 and SB 144 relative to scholarships — will also help dental professionals. We invest in local dental hygiene programs and fund scholarship programs specifically for dental hygienists and assistants. We also support scholarship programs at two schools of dental medicine in our region and contribute to educational loan repayment programs for dental graduates ready to practice in New Hampshire and Northern New England. To strengthen the next generation, we work regularly with local schools to encourage young people to consider careers in dentistry.

Governor Chris Sununu and the New Hampshire state legislature rightly prioritized oral health and overall health by expanding Medicaid to include dental benefits for adults. New Hampshire can now be a leader among states implementing Medicaid dental coverage. We look forward to continuing our partnerships with leaders, local providers and the community to ensure that all Granite Staters can access quality oral health care, achieve better overall health and maintain the healthy smiles we believe everyone deserves.

Concord’s Tom Raffio is president and chief executive officer of Northeast Delta Dental. Vivian Vasallo is executive director of the Delta Dental Institute and lives in Washington, D.C.