WELLFLEET — Liberty Schilpp’s middle-school-age children have already had four different dentists and are about to meet number five, this one in South Dennis.
The problem is not a dearth of dentists, but a lack of those who take MassHealth, the state-subsidized health insurance plan.
This situation has existed for decades all over Massachusetts, because MassHealth reimburses dentists at a lower rate than private insurers. Only half of Massachusetts cities and towns had a dentist taking MassHealth in 2015, according to a 2016 report by the Mass. Health Policy Commission. In 2014, only 35 percent of dentists in the state treated a MassHealth patient.
This problem is causing real pain on the Outer Cape.
Schilpp, of Wellfleet, used to take her children, who are 11 and 13, to Dental Arts Studios of Cape Cod in Eastham, and then to the Outer Cape Dental Group in Wellfleet. First one and then the other private dental practice stopped taking MassHealth patients. Dentists at those offices did not return calls for comment.
Schilpp then found another provider to accept the insurance in Provincetown: Outer Cape Health Services.
OCHS opened a dental practice at its Provincetown clinic in 2010. But it struggled financially, due to the lower reimbursements and also because the volume of patients fluctuated so much from summer to winter that it was difficult to strike a balance in staffing that worked, said Ami Bowen, director of community relations at Harbor Health Services, which later partnered with OCHS to run the dental practice.
The partnership between the two, both federally qualified health centers, was meant to make the most of federal subsidies that offer care to patients regardless of insurance. And Harbor Health had much more experience with dentistry than Outer Cape Health did.
Four of the five Harbor Health clinics statewide offer dental care, Bowen said. And 65 percent of Harbor Health patients are on MassHealth, she added.
But after just two years in Provincetown, Harbor Health shut down that practice, leaving an outfitted Provincetown dental clinic empty in March 2020.
Though it seemed the practice had closed because of the pandemic, Harbor Heath announced in June that it would not reopen in Provincetown.
“The hope was we had more scale, we could find efficiencies and shift resources,” said Bowen. That didn’t overcome the seasonal issues, she said.
The patients from the Outer Cape site, including Schilpp, were directed to the new Ellen Jones Community Dental Center in South Dennis, which is owned by Harbor Health.
The new location opened in August 2020, replacing Harbor Health’s 21-year-old clinic at the Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich. Ellen Jones sees 11,000 patients a year, Bowen said.
A few weeks ago, Schilpp called Ellen Jones and was put on hold for 30 minutes. When she got through, she was relieved that her children were given appointments at the end of September. But it’s stressful, Schilpp said, to have “zero continuity.”
Since creating a local practice that can work with MassHealth seems impossible, she asked, “Why isn’t there a mandate?”
MassHealth’s dental coverage is among the most generous in the country, according to a 2019 policy brief published by the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Children, who get the best coverage of any age group, get cleanings and check-ups twice a year, crowns, oral surgery, and root canals.
But there is no legal requirement for dentists to accept this insurance, and many do not. Over the years, advocates have tried to overcome this hurdle. Most recently, a bill called “An Act Putting Patients First” passed the state senate and is in conference committee. Sen. Julian Cyr voted for it more than once, he said. But since he is a member of the committee now deliberating on it, he could not comment further.
The bill would allow for mid-level professionals known as dental therapists, who must receive a master’s degree level of education, to see patients for less complex procedures, including cleanings and other basic dental treatments.
In 2005, the Alaskan Native Tribal Health Consortium pioneered the first dental therapist program in the U.S. Since then more than 40,000 Alaska natives living in 81 previously underserved or unserved communities gained regular access to care. Sixty percent of the procedures done in the program were preventive and evaluative, according to the Mass. Health Policy Commission.
A similar program began in 2009 in Minnesota, and now dental therapists can work in Maine and Vermont. The bill in Massachusetts, similar to Minnesota’s dental therapist licensing, requires that 50 percent of therapists treat MassHealth and other under-insured patients.