Dental care for disabled may grow even scarcer
Dr. Diana Zschaschel leaned over Boogie's wheelchair to check his teeth with a mirror and probe.

Boogie wailed.

"It's OK, Boogie," said his father, Vergery Grubbs Sr. He reached over to take his son's curled hand. "Keep your mouth open. You're doing a good job."

For the elder Grubbs, this was the easy part. The challenge had been finding a dentist willing to treat his namesake, who is 13 but looks half that age. Dubbed "Boogie" because music makes him laugh, Vergery Grubbs Jr. was born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. He is mentally and physically disabled.

Once father and son waited for three hours to see a dentist, only to be told to go to a county hospital.

"I was hopping mad that day," Grubbs said. The dentist "wanted to put him to sleep just to clean his teeth."

Zschaschel hears such stories all the time.

"I'm kind of the last-resort dentist," she said. "There are very few private dentists who will take on this kind of work."

With cuts to the state's Denti-Cal program scheduled to go into effect in July and another round of cutbacks already on the table, there could soon be even fewer.

Finding dentists to care for patients with disabilities is a challenge under the best of circumstances, said Dr. Paul Glassman, co-director of the Pacific Center for Special Care at the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry in San Francisco.

For starters, he said, few dental schools teach students how to care for patients with disabilities. Over the last 12 years, the USC School of Dentistry has required every student to spend a week working in its Special Patients Clinic, one of the few clinics dedicated to patients with disabilities. But most dentists in private practice haven't had that kind of experience.

Another barrier is the state's low Denti-Cal payments. Disabilities can interfere with finding work and take a toll on family resources, so many people with disabilities depend on this state-federal insurance program for the poor.

But dwindling numbers of dentists accept Denti-Cal patients because reimbursements are among the lowest in the country. They will fall even lower under a 10% rate cut scheduled to go into effect July 1 as part of the Legislature's efforts to reduce the state budget deficit. And Denti-Cal doesn't pay extra for the additional time that goes into treating a patient with disabilities.

"You're asking dentists to do something they're not well-trained to do, that's going to take a lot of time, and they're going to be paid a third of their normal rate," Glassman said. "It's no surprise that a lot of people aren't lining up to do this kind of work."

Hospitals aren't lining up either.

Depending on the degree of disability, some patients require general anesthesia at a hospital to have a tooth pulled, a cavity filled or even just a cleaning.

But across the state, hospitals that once extended staffing privileges to dentists like Zschaschel are cutting back on dental services or discontinuing them altogether, Glassman said.

"It's pretty clearly because of money," he said. "Hospitals have to pay attention to their bottom line. They have to stay in business."

Zschaschel used to treat about eight patients a week under general anesthesia at St. Vincent Medical Center near downtown Los Angeles. She is now down to about four a month, which the hospital evaluates on a case-by-case basis.