If you’re like many Washingtonians, especially those living on a low income or in a rural area, you may not have seen a dentist in quite some time. That’s because access to routine dental care can be frustratingly difficult to obtain if you don’t have the means. We consistently hear from community members that although they have federal or state health insurance (such as Apple Health, Washington’s Medicaid program), they cannot find a dentist who will accept their insurance, due to the low reimbursement rates that dentists receive from Medicaid.

Lily, a community member in Seattle, has first-hand experience with the struggle of obtaining necessary care for her teeth while also living on a low-income. Read her story below, and fill out our survey about your own experience accessing dental care.

Photo of Lily

Growing up in a household experiencing poverty, I never had the opportunity to go to the dentist. I honestly recall going maybe twice before the age of 12. I realize now our dental coverage was tied to my father’s employment and what we could afford month to month. Between rent and necessities, dental care seemed like a less urgent thing to put on the list of expenses. 

Once I entered foster care, I had dental insurance until I was 18. From the ages of 18-21, I had no dental insurance until the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Because my adoptive mother was on Medicaid, I was only able to go to dental clinics that accepted Medicaid. There were few in the area where I attended college and more so, unlike my health care, there was zero support in navigating services. 

After graduation I joined AmeriCorps, where I was able to finally have dental insurance, however the closest dentist that would take my insurance was 45 minutes away and inaccessible by public transportation. 

After AmeriCorps, I moved to Seattle to start my graduate studies. I was back on Medicaid and FINALLY able to access dental care. At the age of 24, it was my first time seeing a dentist since I was 17 years old. I was able to access dental care at Neighborcare on 45th Street. There, they told me I had severe gingivitis. However, due to insurance and their caseload, it took the next one and a half years to get my teeth cleaned; 4 separate appointments every 6 months with 4 separate dentists. 

This is the first year I’ve had insurance through my employer and the result is that I am currently dealing dental challenges that should have been addressed when I was a teenager. I am lucky that I have the income now to get these procedures covered, however my frustration is that I could have dealt with these issues sooner had Medicaid been more accepted by other dental providers. 

There is a way to expand dental care to under-served communities: by employing dental therapists in clinics and dentists’ offices. In the 2021 Legislative Session we’ll be working on legislation that allows dental therapists to work throughout the state. Help us pass a bill to establish dental therapy as a profession and let us know— what has been your experience accessing the dental care you need? Your responses will help us show lawmakers how critical dental therapy is for Washington communities.