Tam Nguyen’s Column: An Opportunity to Expand Dental Care for Those Who Need It Most | Columnists


By Tam Nguyen

Everyone deserves the dignity that comes with a pain-free mouth and a confident smile.

Unfortunately, children do not decide the circumstances in which they are born. Too often, the foundation of access to quality dental care and good dental habits in their early years, which has a profound impact on their lifelong health and well-being, is lacking.

It was definitely for me. As a child, I dreaded the dentist. I didn’t know much about caring for my teeth and needed fillings at almost every appointment. We traveled over an hour from our home in the Shenandoah Valley to see a dentist with a high volume practice. It was chaotic and confusing for me as a young child whose parents only spoke Vietnamese. My associations with the dentist were crowded waiting rooms, pain, drilling, and unfamiliar sounds.

I also felt the impact of these experiences between visits. At some point, I realized that I wasn’t smiling and was hesitant to speak or laugh because I was ashamed to show my teeth.

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It wasn’t until we found a new dentist and orthodontist who accepted children like me into the Medicaid program – and spoke Vietnamese – that I began to see and feel a change. That feeling of comfort, knowing that someone who truly cared about me, changed not just my mouth but my whole outlook on life.

I gained confidence. Even though my braces were uncomfortable at times, I understood how and why they worked, and I could see and feel the progress.

What I didn’t know at the time was that between those early negative experiences and when my family found a new dentist, Virginia revamped its dental Medicaid program. A change in 2005 increased reimbursement rates and saw the number of dentists participating in the program double.

This meant better access to essential dental care for children like me. In just a few years, Virginia has gone from less than 30% of eligible children having access to dental care to more than half of them.

Receiving the compassionate care I needed inspired me to pursue my own career in dentistry and help others. As a dental student at the VCU School of Dentistry – the only dental school in Virginia – I had the good fortune to work in the clinic, helping patients newly eligible for the Adult Dental Medicaid Benefit. I was even able to help break down language barriers and translate for patients who speak Vietnamese.

Unfortunately, I also saw people with familiar problems. Some of the patients we see at the clinic have traveled an hour or more to get treatment, just like my family did, because they can’t find a local dentist accepting new Medicaid patients. Virginia has one of the lowest participation rates in the nation for dentists in the Medicaid program; that’s largely because reimbursement rates haven’t changed since I was a child in 2005, while inflation and rising costs to provide care have eroded the benefit.

State Sense. George Barker, D-Fairfax, and Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, led a bipartisan group that co-sponsored a recently released Senate budget amendment addressing the growing funding shortfall for Virginia’s dental Medicaid program. This state funding, paired with federal dollars, represents a huge opportunity to attract more dental providers and expand access to essential dental care.

It is essential funding. When a person does not have access to dental care, it has an impact on their overall health and well-being. What should be routine often turns into a trip to the hospital for problems that could have been detected early and treated by a dentist inexpensively, while avoiding the negative effects on health and people of delayed processing.

We can reverse this cycle if more dentists can see Medicaid patients, especially where the need is greatest.

After I graduate, I plan to return to the Shenandoah Valley to practice and see patients in the Medicaid program. It’s an important safety net program for Virginia families like mine, and if properly funded, it will continue to be a lifeline for years to come.

I wouldn’t be here without it.

Tam Nguyen is a first year dental student at VCU School of Dentistry. Contact him at: Nguyentt46@vcu.edu


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