Cowlitz County is one of three Washington counties involved in a pilot project to test the benefits of increased oral health services to diabetic or pregnant Medicaid patients.

The Legislature directed the Health Care Authority and the Arcora Foundation to start the three-year pilot program in Cowlitz, Thurston and Spokane counties for eligible Medicaid patients ages 21 to 64. Medicaid is the state program to provide health care for low-income people.

The Oral Health Connections program’s goal is to find out if the extra care could lead to improved health and reduced costs.

Cowlitz Family Health Center Dental Director David Meyers said increased dental disease is often associated with diabetes and pregnancy.

For diabetics, oral disease can make it more difficult to control blood sugar, Meyers said. With pregnancy, poor oral health is associated with preterm labor, low birth weight babies and other complications, he said. Mothers can also pass cavity-causing germs to their unborn children.

Meyers said improving the oral health of these patients can decrease the likelihood of more serious and expensive issues.

The program covers an oral exam, X-rays, thorough teeth cleanings and up to three additional periodontal maintenance visits in within 12 months.

Meyers said in the past, Medicaid covered scaling and root planing once every two years and maintenance once a year. The pilot program adds three more maintenance appointments within 12 months.

However, the way the benefits were written means patients are only eligible for this additional treatment 12 months after scaling and root planing treatment. So many pregnant patients won’t get the additional appointments unless they had been treated before they became pregnant, when they would not have been in the program, Meyers said.

Meyers said many pregnant women develop gum inflammation during pregnancy and could benefit from more frequent cleanings.

The state Health Care Authority is aware of the problem and is working to resolve it, said Sarah Borgida of the Arcora Foundation. 

Since the program started in January, Family Health Center has seen only one or two patients use it, Meyers said.

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