California Healthline Daily Edition

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

More Calif. Adults Seek Dental Care at Hospital Emergency Departments

More Californians in recent years have sought dental care at emergency departments because of cuts to Medi-Cal dental benefits or the loss of private dental insurance, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Medi-Cal is California's Medicaid program.


In 2009, California eliminated coverage of non-emergency dental procedures -- such as teeth cleanings and fillings -- for nearly three million adult Denti-Cal beneficiaries. Denti-Cal is a Medi-Cal dental program. The cut has saved the state more than $100 million annually.

In addition, many Californians who had private dental insurance have lost their coverage because of unemployment or because their employer stopped offering it.

More Patients Seeking Dental Care at EDs

According to data from San Francisco General Hospital, the number of ED visits by patients with dental complaints was:

  • 365 in 2008-2009;
  • 453 in 2009-2010; and
  • 651 in 2011-2012.

Data from Highland Hospital in Oakland show that the number of ED patients seeking dental care was:

  • 577 in 2007; and
  • 2,718 in 2011.

Beth Mertz -- an assistant professor at the UC-San Francisco School of Dentistry -- said there no longer is a safety net for adults who have lost dental coverage.

She said, "Once the tooth starts to go sour, unless they can find the money to pay for it out of pocket, their choice is to wait until it gets bad enough to cover it as an emergency extraction."

EDs Struggle To Provide Dental Care

Although many state residents are seeking dental care at EDs, many departments do not staff dentists.

The Chronicle reports that ED physicians are limited in their ability to treat dental issues. They can:

  • Prescribe painkillers and antibiotics for damaged teeth; and
  • Refer patients to dentists to have a tooth extracted, a procedure that still is covered by Medi-Cal (Joseph, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/31).
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