SOUTH JORDAN, Utah - Getting some children to the dentist in Utah is a lot like pulling teeth.
The Pew Children's Dental Campaign says in a new report that across the country, more than half of low-income children didn't see a dentist at all in 2011. And in Utah, 10 to 15 percent of the population lives in areas with an overall shortage of dental care.
Dr. Steven Steed, dental director with the Utah Department of Health, says it isn't so much a supply problem as a distribution problem. Most of the dentists practice in the four urban counties.
"There really has not been a real shortage of dentists in Utah," he says, "and now with two dental schools, we see even less of a problem with having enough dentists. It's just going to be those issues to be sure that we can entice those dentists to go to some of these rural areas where there are some underserved populations."
Steed says the state's two dental schools will accommodate about 100 students a year and are being encouraged to place them in areas of need. The state also has a mobile dental clinic.
However, only about half of the dentists in Utah see people on Medicaid, and Steed says only 12 percent have a "meaningful number" of Medicaid patients.
Jane Koppelman, senior officer for the Pew Children's Dental Campaign, says that's a frustration in many states, since Medicaid covers dental care.
"For many families, Medicaid is like a hunting license," she says. "You have the opportunity to search for a dentist. You might find one and you might not - low reimbursement rates being central to that issue."
According to Steed, dentists lose money on Medicaid patients with a reimbursement rate of only 30 to 40 percent. As an alternative, he says, Utah dentists do a higher percentage of charitable work than the national average.
"Many dentists I've talked to have said just because some of the challenges in Medicaid, they would prefer to see a Medicaid patient for free than to go through the process of billing and the other issues that are attached to it," he says. "So, we do know that some of that is happening as well."
The Pew report says one solution to the lack of access to dental care may come as more states license a newer type of practitioner, known as a dental therapist. Utah isn't currently one of them, but Steed says the state will keep an eye on other states' experiences.