Growing health care costs and stressed state budgets are now sending more people to the emergency room for dental care. This is leaving hospitals with a hefty bill and slowing down care for others.
Both University Medical Center and Covenant Hospital are seeing 30 people a week with everything from a toothache to a broken tooth. The problem? Hospitals don't have emergency dentists on staff.
"Dental medicine is way different than allopathic medicine, which we do," said Dr. Joe Sasin, UMC Emergency Center Director.
Sasin says basically they can only prescribe antibiotics or pain killers to patients with dental problems.
"There are two kinds of dental patients - those who really want to get better, and those who primarily just want pain medication," Sasin said.
Often times, he says, patients will leave the hospital footing the bill, simply because they don't have health insurance. That's why UMC has $81 million budgeted every year for unfunded care. $18 million of that budget is from taxpayers. Covenant says they set aside $114 million for uncompensated care.
"It tallies into the millions of dollars every year, billions of dollars nationally," Sasin said.
There are low-income dental clinics that can help these patients, but Sasin says they require a doctor's referral. So people are racking up hundreds of dollars in emergency room bills, just so they can get an appointment.
"Community dental clinics have used us as a screening tool so much, we have a form that we fill out that refers them to the dental clinic and can get them in faster," Sasin said.
All of this is slowing down the ER. Sasin says at times they are struggling to give critical patients immediate care.
To alleviate this problem, Covenant is sending dental patients to their hospital funded clinic.
"For basic services that we provide to get patients out of pain is a $20 co-pay," said Clinic Dentist Dr. William Parker.
Patients like Amanda Davenport say on a fixed income, paying a small amount at a dental clinic is the only way to get care.
"We can primarily afford this rather than going to a regular dentist," said Davenport.
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