Policy choices end up hurting families, government budgets

Many middle- and lower-income people face difficult decisions when in it comes to dental care. Living paycheck-to-paycheck forces families to use their money for only immediate needs. Preventive dental care, unfortunately, often gets put on the back burner.

The results of delaying dental care can be financially devastating — both to the families and government budgets.

According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, the cost of emergency dental care versus having regular preventative dental care is staggering.

A recent Pew Center for the States study found that preventable dental problems were the primary reason for more than 800,000 emergency room visits nationwide in 2009 — up 16 percent from 2006. The same study found that Chicago-area hospitals received nearly 77,000 visits from patients with non-injury dental ailments from 2008 to 2011.

And the Chicago Dental Society said in a 2013 report that the prospects of the uninsured and underinsured to receive affordable treatment was dismal and on the decline.

For example, the study found that dental providers with the Cook County Department of Public Health served nearly 11,900 patients in 2000, but had resources to treat fewer than 5,000 in 2009. By 2011, more than half of those surveyed said they had delayed dental treatment for financial reasons.

What's the future in dental care for lower income families? Families could turn to the state. The state does have a history of funding dental benefits for lower income adults. They also have a history of cutting those benefits.

Just three years ago, Illinois' Medicaid dental care program was cut in a series of "reforms" ex-Gov. Pat Quinn said would "rescue the state's Medicaid system from the brink of collapse."

Two years later, Quinn and lawmakers restored the program with the acknowledgement that the original action was counterproductive because taxpayers paid significantly more because families used emergency rooms for care — a more costly path of service.

"A lack of dental care for low-income adults has always been an issue in the state," said Jeanne Winsted Rosser, social services administrator for New Trier Township, which launched its own modest dental assistance program after learning from residents that many lacked insurance. "When the state makes budget cuts to dental programs, they're not always thinking of the big picture."

In a perfect world we all could afford dental care on our own. Life sometimes has other plans. It's difficult to prioritize expenses when there is a limited amount of money coming in. Worrying about our bills day-by-day, week-by- week is a hard way to live. In the long run however, it is much less expensive to take a preventative stance on dental care.