Michigan offers free dental care to poor kids; more than 400,000 don’t use it

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Gaping cavities, exposed nerves and abscesses so deep they swell the gums and cheeks – these are the painful problems Michigan dentists see in some of their youngest patients.

That’s because nearly half of Michigan’s poor children don’t visit dentists’ offices even though treatment and follow-up care cost their families absolutely nothing.

That, in turn, means kids with preventable pain, lost school time, frustrated parents and, in some cases, higher costs of care, said Holli Seabury, executive director of Delta Dental Foundation, which provides funds for dental outreach efforts across the state.

Untreated cavities become tooth extractions or worse.

“When you have decay in the baby teeth so bad that it has exposed the nerve and it’s already in the pulp and there’s an abscess, you can’t save that” ‒ Dr. Ammar Houssein

Families without a dental home often turn to emergency rooms ‒ a more costly option ‒ when mouth pain becomes unbearable. In some cases, untreated dental problems can be fatal.

“Does prevention have a cost? Yes, it’s going to have a cost. But it’s cheaper than an ER visit or the eventual oral surgery because a child has extreme amounts of dental decay,” Seabury said.

In 2018, more than 420,000 Michigan children and young adults age 20 and under never saw a dentist ‒ even for basic cleaning and screening. Several dentists who see those children say it’s a struggle to get them back in the chair for follow-up care, including fillings and extractions. Those services also are free for kids in Healthy Kids Dental, Michigan’s dental plan for children on Medicaid, which provides medical care for low-income residents.

The plan covers cleanings, screenings, and most common follow-up treatment such as fillings, crowns, and extractions. (Delta Dental was the sole insurer of Healthy Kids Dental until Oct. 1 last year. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan now offers coverage as well.)