Chicago, Cook County Dental Safety Net Shrinking Drastically: New Report

'Oral Care Not A Priority' in the Region, Will Lead to Larger Public Health Crisis, Warns Chicago Dental Society

Feb 21, 2013, 10:00 ET from Chicago Dental Society

CHICAGO, Feb. 21, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- The Chicago area has lost more than one in four of its low-cost dental clinics in recent years, reflecting an alarming decay in the region's system of oral health for the financially distressed, according to a new report the Chicago Dental Society released today.

The report—a comprehensive assessment of public dental care in the region—recommends a broad public-private approach to restoring a fragile and fraying dental safety net, which has been compromised by a rash of shuttered clinics, and limited Medicaid providers. 

Broken Smiles: Restoring Access to Oral Health Care in Chicago and Cook County documents bleak findings, including:

  • Public health clinics underfunded and stretched thin: There is just one dental clinic in Cook County for every 15,700 children. 
  • A lack of oral health advocates in local government: Chicago does not have a dental director. Illinois appointed its first dental director in five years in 2011.
  • Dental schools become de facto clinics: As the only dental school in Cook County and Chicago, the UIC College of Dentistry has seen an influx of underserved patients.

"The Chicago region is facing the perfect storm of an oral health crisis," noted Dr. Susan Becker Doroshow, CDS Secretary. "Over the past five years, we've seen a continued shrinking of affordable dental care for low-income individuals and families. The foundation of modern dental care is prevention and early treatment of tooth decay and gum disease. Without access to routine exams, cleanings, and X-rays, hundreds of thousands of Chicago residents are at risk of suffering needlessly from pain and, ultimately, tooth loss. Oral health care is just not a priority in our public health system, and that's a dangerous mindset, leading to negative effects for our communities."

From 2006-2011, the number of safety net dental clinics in Cook, Lake and DuPage counties plunged 27 percent. Currently, there are only 18 public dental clinics in Chicago, with several lacking a dentist and none operated by the City of Chicago. At Cook County Department of Public Health clinics, patients must routinely wait one to three months for an appointment. And just last year, a $1.6 billion cut in Illinois' Medicaid program restricted adult dental benefits to emergency tooth extractions only.

"As a society, we need to value dental health," said Dr. Alice Boghosian, CDS Communications Committee. "People with untreated dental issues are at a higher risk for chronic systemic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. There can also be emotional and social implications from low self-esteem to challenges with employment opportunities."

The CDS report also evaluates the role of dental providers. Illinois suffers from a shortage of Medicaid dentists, and the new Medicaid rules further erode the pool of enrolled providers. Cost of care is also rising for dentists, many of whom could not sustain their practice, if only open to safety net patients. On average, Medicaid dentists are reimbursed 46.7 cents on the dollar compared to the reimbursement of hospitals and pediatricians, with rates of 77 and 84 cents, respectively. Nationwide, Illinois is ranked 48th overall in reimbursement rates for Medicaid services.

"Dentists are committed to helping patients achieve quality oral care, but they alone can't solve this problem," said Dr. Michael Santucci, Chair, CDS Access to Care Committee. "Today's economy makes it extremely challenging to operate a practice and administer and treat every underserved patient when state reimbursements don't come even close to covering the cost of business. However, the dental community has worked tirelessly through philanthropic, volunteer and advocacy efforts to aid patients in need. And we'll continue to do our best."

Data from a variety of public sources, including local surveys conducted by CDS, were reviewed and aggregated for the study. The Chicago Dental Society aims to use this collective research to mobilize policymakers, educators, dentists and patients to develop immediate and long-term solutions to address– and eventually eradicate–disparities in Chicago, Cook County and beyond.

A radical approach is not suggested, but rather, simple and strategic changes among various stakeholders are recommended, including:

  • Greater investments in oral health programs and initiatives
  • Increased oral health awareness among at-risk patients
  • Incentivizing dentists to work with underserved patients
  • Increased workforce of hygienists and assistants
  • Improved collection of data
  • Boosted advocacy at the city and county levels

CDS also chronicles the achievements made by oral health advocates in recent years, among them the establishment of the Chicago Dental Society Foundation, which provides a stable source of income to dental education programs and dental clinics through private and corporate fundraising.

In March 2013, the Foundation will open its first-ever free dental clinic in Wheaton. The location, 416 E. Roosevelt Road, is along Metra and Pace routes and serves needy populations in DuPage, Lake and Cook counties. Patients must have proof of residency; they must be unable to access insurance; and they must show proof of income no greater than 200 percent of the poverty level. Services will include oral examinations, prophylaxis, inter-oral and panoramic X-rays, basic restorations and carefully evaluated extractions. 

Access to oral care will be among the topics of discussion at the CDS annual Midwinter Meeting, as more than 30,000 dental professionals will gather at McCormick Place on February 21-23. The meeting showcases the latest technologies and trends for dental professionals. Seminars will include topics on geriatric and pediatric dentistry, nutrition and office management, among many others.

Read the full report at

The Chicago Dental Society is an association for dentists in the metropolitan Chicago area; organizer of the Midwinter Meeting, the leading scientific dental meeting and tradeshow; and an advocate for improving oral health for all. Since its founding in 1864, and incorporation in 1878, CDS' mission has been to encourage the improvement of the health of the public, to promote the art and science of dentistry and to represent the interest of the members of the profession and the public that it serves. CDS counts more than 4,300 dentists as members. For more information, visit the Society's website at

SOURCE Chicago Dental Society