Reporter follows dental hygienists’ battle to treat vulnerable patients

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Ana B. Ibarra

Sacramento-based California Healthline reporter Ana B. Ibarra has been following a battle being waged by independent practice dental hygienists who contend that actions by the state of California are forcing them to give up their most vulnerable patients, poor and frail people covered by Denti-Cal, the state’s Medicaid dental program.

In one story late last year, Ibarra captured the scene at a Rancho Cucamonga residential care facility where a visiting dental hygienist Gita Aminloo was caring for one of those patients, Devon Rising, who is blind and disabled. After California cut Denti-Cal reimbursement rates and set new authorization requirements for such visits, Aminloo and other hygienists sued, warning that the changes were making it very difficult to continue to provide needed care.

The state defended the measures as necessary to control costs and prevent unnecessary care. Then, in a March 2 story, Ibarra provided readers with an update on the story. In a ruling, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel found that the state had failed to obtain permission from the federal government before it cut its rate for a special cleaning by 58 percent and created a new preauthorization process for the hygienists’ visits, Ibarra wrote.

In this new Q&A, Ibarra offers insights into her coverage of this unfolding story and what it reveals about the complexities and challenges of obtaining and providing dental care to disabled patients under one state’s Medicaid system. And she provides some words of wisdom to fellow journalists who might want to explore this topic in their own states

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