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Preventive dental care such as routine teeth cleaning can cost $50 to $100, versus $1,000 for emergency room treatment that may include painkillers for aching cavities and antibiotics from resulting infections, Catalanotto said.
These infections can be dangerous, especially in young children, who may develop fevers and dehydration from preventable dental conditions. In Florida, for example, 200 children were hospitalized in 2006 for those types of infections, he said.
The recession has contributed to the trend, Catalanotto added. When a family member loses a job, dental care may take a back seat to food and other necessities.
Part of the problem is low Medicaid fees for dentists. In Florida, only about 10 percent of dentists participate in the state Medicaid program, he said.
The numbers also are rising in hospitals in Illinois, where dentists have complained about low Medicaid reimbursements.
Pekin Hospital in the central Illinois town of Pekin has seen a significant increase in ER patients with "very poor dental health," said Cindy Justus, the hospital's ER nursing director. They include uninsured patients and drug abusers, and many are repeat patients.
"There's just not a lot of options" for them, Justus said.
Shortages of dentists, especially in rural areas, have contributed to the problem, Gehshan said.
She said the Pew center is working with states to develop training for dental hygienists and other non-dentists in treating cavities and other uncomplicated procedures. Other potential steps include increasing water fluoridation and use of dental sealants.
Putting plastic sealants on molars can prevent cavities, but "children at the lowest risk are most likely to get them. It needs to be the opposite," Gehshan said.
Pew Center: http://pewcenteronthestates.org/dental
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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