Study: Not enough dentists in South Pew reports residents underserved in tooth care

Dental student Rebecca Harper cleans the teeth of Kylie Allen, 5, of Moncks Corner on Thursday at the Medical University of South Carolina Dental Clinic.

Paul Zoeller

Several Southern states have some of the most severe dentist shortages in the country, according to a new national report released this week.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts shows that 20.6 percent of South Carolina’s population is underserved by dental professionals and also lives in a “dental shortage area.” It’s the sixth most severe shortage in the country.

Other Southern states fared even worse.

Mississippi ranked at the top of the list with 36.3 percent of its population underserved by dentists, and Louisiana and Alabama tied for second at 24.4 percent.

To compound the problem in Louisiana, nearly 42 percent of the state’s dentists are over 55 years old and nearing retirement, which could worsen the shortage, the study says.

The findings come as Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals is cutting reimbursement rates paid to dentists through the government-funded Medicaid program, a move that dentists there say will shrink access to services.

The Louisiana health department announced the cuts late last week, saying lawmakers didn’t provide enough money to continue all existing services and pay for expected increases in Medicaid program use.

DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert said the 3 percent cut to the rates dentists are paid for taking care of Medicaid patients, mostly children, is a mild decrease to spending on dental care that shouldn’t cause dentists to stop offering the care to the poor.

“It’s a very minor reduction, and it still puts us ahead of our neighboring states in terms of the rates for most services,” she said.

But those neighboring states also are listed by Pew as high shortage areas.

“What they’ve selected is two of the sorriest states in reimbursement rates to compare us: Mississippi and Alabama. What is our standard going to be? To get us to the bottom of the barrel?” said Dr. Edward “Don” Donaldson, a pediatric dentist in the New Orleans area.

The Pew study says that without early access to dental care, people are more likely to face preventable, but serious dental conditions that require more costly emergency room treatment.

Louisiana’s $2.8 million budget reduction for Medicaid payments to dentists comes on top of recent cuts reaching 14 percent for the most frequently billed procedures, according to the Louisiana Dental Association.

Despite the cuts, Kliebert said, the state has made significant improvements in boosting the number of children who receive dental services through the Medicaid program.

She said 30 percent of children in Medicaid received dental care in the 2007-08 fiscal year, compared to 43 percent four years later.

She noted that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ranked Louisiana in April as one of the top 10 states for improved access to preventive dental care for Medicaid children. According to the Pew study, nearly 60 percent of children on Medicaid in South Carolina were treated by a dentist in 2011.

Tony Keck, director of South Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, said South Carolina’s Medicaid program doesn’t face the same financial problems plaguing Louisiana. He also said the Medicaid program here pays dentists more for treating Medicaid patients than many other states.

“We have some of the highest Medicaid dental rates in the country,” said Keck, who previously worked for Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals. “We pay more — Economics 101.”

The Post and Courier’s Lauren Sausser contributed to this report.