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New AHCCCS emergency dental benefit praised as major public health gain

New AHCCCS emergency dental benefit praised as major public health gain

Adults enrolled in Arizona’s Medicaid program are at long last getting some dental coverage.

The state’s budget signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on May 12 includes $1.5 million to cover emergency dental services for adults enrolled in Medicaid, which is a government insurance program for low income people.

Arizona’s Medicaid program is called the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) and it provides health coverage for nearly 30 percent of Pima County residents.

The dental benefit does not take effect immediately, however. AHCCCS enrollees should be able to start using it Oct. 1 with any AHCCCS-registered dentist, AHCCCS officials said last week. Though the benefit is not expected to cover preventive dental care like screenings and teeth cleaning, it is a positive step, oral-health advocates say.

“Restoring that benefit is by far the biggest public health gain from the session,” said Will Humble, who is executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

“Not just a public health improvement but just simply humane. … It’s been a long time coming.”

An emergency dental benefit for adults on AHCCCS was slashed in 2010 during the recession.

“This is a major improvement that will help lower income adults take care of serious health issues that can stand in the way of them getting employment,” said Dr. Eric Curtis, a Safford dentist who is president of the Arizona Dental Association.

Curtis added that the association ultimately would like to see more comprehensive dental benefits for adult AHCCCS members, which is what enrollees under the age of 21 already have.

What it means

The benefit restoration means any adult who is covered by AHCCCS may use up to $1,000 per year for “emergency dental care” and extractions.

The exact definition of “emergency dental care” will be defined in more detail in forthcoming policy, AHCCCS spokeswoman Heidi Capriotti wrote in an email.

Arizona had been one of four states in the country that did not give any dental benefits to its non-disabled adult Medicaid population, the nonprofit Center for Health Care Strategies found in an October 2016 report. The others are Alabama, Tennessee and Delaware.

Disabled adults over the age of 21 enrolled in AHCCCS have since 2016 had a $1,000 annual dental benefit.

Kids who have their insurance through AHCCCS have comprehensive dental coverage that includes preventative services.

Other health measures that passed this legislative session:

  • Drug overdose review team

HB 2493 set up a drug overdose review team at the Arizona Department of Health Services, much like its existing child fatality review team.

Its functions will include developing a data collection system regarding drug overdoses; conducting an annual analysis relating to drug overdose fatalities; and studying state and local laws, training and services in order to recommend policies to decrease drug overdose fatalities.

  • Primary care loan repayment

The state budget authorized an additional $350,000 per year to go into the state’s loan repayment program, which gives primary care and other frontline health practitioners an opportunity for student loan debt relief by practicing in rural and underserved areas of the state. The total annual state funds for the program now amount to $1 million per year. And that will potentially qualify Arizona for up to an additional $1 million in federal funds.

  • Newborn screening

The state budget includes a measure allowing the Arizona Department of Health Services to increase their newborn screening fees by $6 per test so the state can test newborns for Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID), which is also known as “bubble boy disease.”

Most babies survive the rare disorder if screened for it and treated as newborns. But if they are not screened and immediately treated, they face expensive treatments and higher mortality rates.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services put SCID on its list of recommended core newborn screenings in 2010 and Arizona was one of three states in the country that did not screen for it.

  • Outpatient occupational therapy for adults on AHCCCS

The state budget now allows AHCCCS to start providing coverage for occupational therapy as an outpatient health service for all their enrollees when it’s medically necessary. It had previously only been allowed in inpatient hospital settings, for outpatient members under 21, and for adults enrolled in the Arizona Long Term Care System portion of AHCCCS.

  • Asthma management

Schools will be better able to help kids with asthma to manage their symptoms next school year thanks to the passage of HB 2208. It will let trained school staff to administer or help administer an inhaler for a student in respiratory distress.

Contact health reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or email On Twitter:


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