Utah Philanthropists Restore Medicaid Dental Benefit

When the Utah legislature cut dental care from its Medicaid plan earlier this year, Gov. Jon Huntsman asked the public to make donations. They delivered, raising the $2 million needed to restore the benefit. But critics say it's the role of government, not philanthropists, to pay for essential services.

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Utah, like other states, is reeling from federal cutbacks to Medicaid, the government's health insurance for the poor. This spring, Utah's blind, elderly and disabled got a shock when they learned they were losing one of the program's optional services: dental coverage. The state found a creative solution, but critics say it's a dangerous fix.

Jenny Brundin reports for member station KUER in Salt Lake City.

JENNY BRUNDIN reporting:

Joy Mayland(ph) takes out her top dentures and washes them with a toothbrush, as she does every morning and night.

Ms. JOY MAYLAND: That's more teeth than I've seen in a long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRUNDIN: For years, Mayland suffered severe ear, nose and throat infections and migraines. Finally, a doctor told her abscess teeth were the cause. She quickly had her top teeth replaced and is now nearly pain free. Mayland was preparing to treat four of her bottom teeth when she learned that the Utah legislature was dropping dental care July 1st.

Ms. MAYLAND: My God, I am terrified. I just have a great fear that should I have to have, you know, all of these things done, it won't be available to me.

BRUNDIN: So Utah's elderly, blind and disabled took their signs and wheelchairs to Capitol Hill during a special legislative session in May.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BRUNDIN: And they had the state's Republic governor on their side. Jon Huntsman, troubled by the cuts, had called lawmakers into session, asking them to find $2 million for emergency dental care. But Republican legislators argue that federal cuts in Medicaid left them no choice. Senate budget chair Lyle Hillyard.

State Senator LYLE HILLYARD (Republican, Utah): I can tell you plain and simply, there is never enough money. I could double the amount of money, double the money to every committee, and I'm sure there'd be people come up who'd say, you forgot us, you didn't get down to us.

BRUNDIN: So Gov. Huntsman decided to go to the people for the money. Twenty-one days later, he called a press conference.

Governor JON HUNTSMAN (Utah): We're there.

BRUNDIN: The $2 million, he announced, had been raised.

Gov. HUNTSMAN: It's only appropriate after our state has been named the number one volunteer state in the nation that we're reminded once again of our great people and our great organizations, who in a time of need step up to the plate and deliver.

BRUNDIN: Utah billionaire James Sorenson pledged the initial one million. Intermountain Healthcare, the state's largest medical provider, matched that. Ordinary citizens also donated thousands.

Ms. JUDI HILMAN (Utah Health Policy Project): Philanthropy, you can't rely on it. We shouldn't have to rely on it.

BRUNDIN: Judi Hilman is with the Utah Health Policy Project, a nonprofit working for health coverage for all Utahans.

Ms. HILMAN: It needs to be the role of government to pay for these kinds of services. What I'm worried about is that we might be setting up this expectation that philanthropy is going to be there to pick up the slack when government refuses to pay for essential medical services.

State Senator PETE KNUDSON (Republican, Utah): I don't think that that is going to be the pattern.

BRUNDIN: Utah Senate majority leader Pete Knudson doesn't share Hilman's pessimism. He sees the donation as a temporary fix. Furthermore, Knudson, a dentist, believes the tumultuous debate sent a strong message to the Utah legislature about the importance of dental care.

State Senator KNUDSON: Unfortunately with dental there are many mixed signals in terms of its relative value in terms of healthcare. We now know, after years and years of looking at the consequences of poor dental health, that dental health ranks right up at the very top in terms of healthcare needs and the value for health.

BRUNDIN: In fact, research has linked gum disease to costly medical conditions like heart and lung disease and stroke. But dental benefits will come under scrutiny again when a committee of lawmakers sits down this summer to work on a gargantuan task, one that's taking place in states across the country: which Medicaid program should be cut and which should be saved, in anticipation of future federal cuts? For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City.

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