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For many across Virginia, dental health care is still out of reach—these programs are trying to bridge the gap

Dental student Carl Leiner, left, checks Lisa Kantsos teeth at the Remote Area Medical clinic in Wise, Va. July, 2017. Kantsos and hundreds of other uninsured patients came to the rural clinic for free dental and medical care.
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AP
Dental student Carl Leiner, left, checks Lisa Kantsos teeth at the Remote Area Medical clinic in Wise, Va. July, 2017. Kantsos and hundreds of other uninsured patients came to the rural clinic for free dental and medical care.

Until last summer, nearly 5 million Virginians lacked dental insurance. Expansions to Medicaid in the past year have helped, there’s still a shortage of dentists in parts of the Commonwealth who are willing to accept low-income patients.

Last month, Virginia increased its reimbursement rate for dentists who accept Medicaid by 30 percent. “That is a big deal for the Medicaid program in Virginia and progress that a lot of folks have worked toward for a long time increase to dental provider reimbursement,” said Tara Quinn, executive director for the Virginia Dental Association Foundation. She said she’s hopeful that this change will encourage more dentists to accept Medicaid.

“The challenge has remained that there still are a significant shortage of Medicaid dental providers in Virginia. And southwest Virginia is one of those most impacted by that,” Quinn said.

To help those who can’t afford a dentist, the VDA Foundation hosts free pop-up dental clinics across Virginia. Last month, they treated over 300 patients at a popup clinic in Wise, as part of a project called the Mission of Mercy.

The VDA Foundation also has assistance for people who need dental care before they can be cleared for hospital procedures, like a kidney replacement, or chemotherapy. They’re also working to encourage more dentists to set up business in areas with low access.

Across Virginia, there are 63 dentists per 100,000 people, according to the American Dental Association. The rates are much lower in southwest Virginia, where there are only 29 dentists for every 100,000 people, according to the Appalachian Highlands Community Dental Center.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.