Tenn. Dental ER Visits on the Rise, Office Visits Falling

Aug 13, 2013

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  Four year-old Emily Bratcher recently had a cavity filled, and as uncomfortable as getting your teeth drilled might be, she was lucky to be sitting in the dentist’s chair at all.

Last year, the federal Centers for Disease control ranked Tennessee 47th among the 50 states for dental care.

A recent Pew Research study indicates Tennessee suffers from one of the worst dentist shortages in the nation and nearly half of dentists who do practice in the state are nearing retirement.

As you might expect, Tennessee’s low income families are most at risk. Low income children enrolled in Tenncare, Tennessee’s version of Medicaid, do have dental insurance. However, income restrictions mean many working poor make too much to qualify, including Emily’s family.

Emily and her sister were treated at the Interfaith Dental Clinic, where Dr. Rhonda Switzer is the Executive Director.

“People who are living below 200 percent of poverty really struggle with basic dental care – that’s treating emergency dental pain and infection – let alone being able to get preventive care or reconstruction if they’ve already suffered from the disease.”

Dr. Switzer’s clinic treats only the working poor and charges them a sliding-scale fee based on income. She notes that it’s especially important for the working poor to get adequate care.

“Unfortunately, our society looks at people’s weight, their dialect, and their teeth in making decisions – is that person educated or employable.”

The Pew report indicates that nearly half of Tennessee children who actually do qualify for free dental care, didn’t see a dentist last year. Dr. Switzer says several factors may be at work.

“It’s usually more the parent’s understanding that the children need to go -on a routine basis, not just when they’re hurting – also the parents having transportation and timing their jobs and their day to get the children there…we see that more as a barrier.”

Emily’s mom, Deborah Bratcher, grew up in California. She says in that state even the cheapest insurance policies include dental care. She’s a bit angry that the same level of coverage isn’t available in Tennessee.

“It’s just upsetting, cause I don’t want my children to go through having bad teeth because I can’t afford $3,000 for dental work every other month or something.”

A survey released this past year by the CDC indicates the problem is getting worse. The study shows that the number of Tennesseans visiting a dentist routinely is falling, while the number of people showing up in the state’s hospital emergency rooms with dental complaints is on the rise.

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