The fight to fund dental care for seniors

SAN DIEGO (KUSI) — Dental care for senior citizens is a hidden epidemic in San Diego County.

Millions of seniors on fixed incomes have severe tooth loss, gum disease and decay became they have no access to dental care.

Denti-Cal, the Medi-Cal version of dental coverage in California, has been underfunded for years and San Diego is leading an effort to reverse that with funds from the cigarette tax.

Take a second and think about it. What would your life be like without teeth?

Thomas Sanchez lost several teeth years ago. He went to a dentist and got an estimate of $3,400 for dental work he needed.

"I said, ‘I can’t afford that and this is why I came here because this is a life-saver for me,’" Sanchez said.

Here is the Serving Seniors’ Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center downtown where seniors pay a small copay with the remainder paid by the center, Health West, and what the state’s Denti-Cal program will reimburse which is a fraction of the bill.

Without this help, Sanchez would likely have no teeth at all.

"This is gonna enable me to live life, to be happy. You know I was just in a deep depression for a long time because I couldn’t function as an average human being," Sanchez said.

Medicare does not cover dental coverage. The seniors feel basically forgotten.

"People that cannot eat, people that cannot speak, people that cannot smile, basically people that cannot function to the minimum level," said Dr. Karen Becerra, the CEO and Dental Director at the center.

Dr. Becerra said no teeth means soft foods and a lack of nutrition the body needs. The said having teeth gives them back their dignity and hope.

"When we finish a treatment and we hand them a mirror they say, ‘Is that me?’ And they said I have forgotten how to smile," Dr. Becerra said. "This is a program that will prolong your life, change your whole attitude, it’s just a positive program."

But to keep it going requires more funding. These seniors are signing cards, several hundred, which will accompany a letter to the state health department to increase funding from the $2 increase in the cigarette tax passed last year. It will generate $1.7 billion in 2017 alone.

Downey said Denti-Cal is primarily for the young, but more than 600 seniors got dental help so far this year and there’s a waiting list.

The signature cards are a plea to increase funding.

"Create the data to demonstrate to both the state and federal governments that investing in dental will actually lower the overall health care costs," Downey said.

Only a small fraction of dentists will accept Denti-Cal patients. Some offer the service free of charge rather than hassle with the bureaucracy’s paperwork. 

Categories: Local San Diego News