RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – State lawmakers are taking steps to expand access to dental care for low-income Virginians.
Last summer, the state’s Medicaid program began providing dental care to nearly one million adult members. Following the massive expansion, Virginia is raising provider wages for the first time in more than a decade in hopes of expanding access to care.
Dr. Randy Adams, a pediatric dentist in Richmond, said it currently takes about a month to get an appointment, but he hopes to see that time decrease if more providers sign up to care for Medicaid patients.
“It’s important because dental care is part of overall health,” Adams said.
State data shows that the number of dentists accepting Medicaid patients has fluctuated over the past ten years, but over the past five years the number has generally dropped. The total is down 137 providers from the 2017 peak of 2,031, according to the Virginia Department of Medicaid Assistance Services.
After the state expanded dental benefits for adults in 2021, former Gov. Ralph Northam wrote a letter to 3,900 members of the Virginia Dental Association asking them to accept patients. DMAS says only five other providers have started accepting Medicaid since then.
Adams said dentists were losing money on services because reimbursement rates were so low. Since July 1, Virginia has increased the salary of dentists by 30%.
“Well, it’s not enough, but it’s a good start if you consider that we haven’t had an increase in 17 years and the cost of dentistry has gone up 60%,” said Adams.
Dr. Olivia Stallard, a dentist in Wise County, expects the biggest impact to be seen in rural areas, where many patients rely on free pop-up clinics as a last resort.
“It’s going to be life changing for a lot of people,” Stallard said.
According to DMAS data, 165,140 adult Medicaid members have received dental services since the expansion a year ago. That’s less than 20% of the 930,000 total eligible adults in Virginia.
In southwest Virginia, Stallard said many providers have dropped out of Medicaid or stopped accepting new patients. She said it was not possible for many to take more and keep their doors open.
Stallard hopes that the increase in reimbursement rates will change things.
“It’s sad because they have that advantage, but they have nowhere to use it,” Stallard said. “Closest I can think of where they are accepting new patients is at least an hour away.”