Beginning on July 1, over 200,000 low-income adults in Maine gained access to comprehensive oral health coverage, the result of a multi-year campaign by advocates that culminated in the state legislature and Gov. Janet Mills taking action in 2021 to close the longstanding benefits gap.
As part of the state budget passed last year, Mills and the legislature approved a $45 million investment that expands MaineCare — the state’s Medicaid program — to cover comprehensive dental benefits for those 21 and over. Before, only emergency coverage was provided for adults, meaning those on the program often didn’t get treatment unless they were in a significant amount of pain, leading to worse health outcomes, increased stigma for many low-income people, and greater expenses for the health care system.
The expansion in coverage — which is expected to ultimately benefit over 217,000 people in the state — will be life-changing for many, advocates said.
“I’ve thought about this day for years and can’t believe we’re finally here,” said Stephanie Chase of Augusta, a member of the leadership team with Maine Equal Justice that helped lead the campaign for expanded dental coverage. “Opportunities will be opening up for so many adults who have suffered from dental emergencies for years. Proper dental care can be the difference between employment and unemployment for some. For others, it can be the difference between life and death.”
“Maine is joining the great majority of states in recognizing that our mouths are a part of our bodies and that dental care is health care,” added Kathy Kilrain del Rio of Maine Equal Justice. “This is a life-changing step forward for Maine people, our communities, and our workforce.”
The program beginning July 1 also features increased reimbursement rates for dental providers, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said in a news release. DHHS said MaineCare members who are 21 and over will automatically be enrolled in the comprehensive dental benefit program. Full dental benefits for kids was already part of MaineCare coverage and will continue to be.
DHHS said the updated coverage will cover a variety of procedures, such as cleanings and fillings, root canals, dentures, and other important oral health services. The news release added that the reimbursement rate increase for providers is meant to support diagnostic and preventative services and that DHHS will continue to work with stakeholders in the coming months to conduct outreach to dental facilities about the opportunity to provide care to low-income Mainers.
“Dental health is an important part of overall health,” Mills said in a statement Wednesday. “Providing preventive and routine dental care will not only improve the health and wellness of hundreds of thousands of Maine people, but it will also save money in the long-run by preventing the need for expensive emergency care. I am glad to have worked with the legislature to expand dental care for Maine people.”
In his statement, Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), who sponsored the bill that was incorporated into the budget to expand dental care, referenced the many wrenching stories lawmakers heard from adults who couldn’t access dental care.
“Our previous system had forced people to use the emergency room when their teeth reached the point of no return, which was costing folks their dignity and health,” Fecteau said. “The stories I heard were simply heartbreaking. As of today, the Mainers who were willing to share their stories have helped changed the face of health care in our state.”
Legislation to provide comprehensive MaineCare dental coverage was also introduced in 2020, but that effort was cut short when the legislature adjourned due to the pandemic. A bill in 2019 that would have enacted a similar reform was approved unanimously by the Health and Human Services Committee and passed by the legislature with strong bipartisan support. But during budget negotiations, the measure was changed to instead establish a working group tasked with further investigating the need for an expanded dental benefit. That effort died, however, when Mills withheld her signature from the legislation.
Advocates were finally successful in pushing for the expanded benefit during the 2021 legislative session in a movement spearheaded by those in need of coverage and supported by progressive groups and health care organizations.
Photo: Robby Lewis-Nash