How I did it

Learn from these journalists how they have covered various aspects of medical studies and research. They provide valuable tips and sources and explain how they got past the challenges to explain these complex topics to their audiences.

Reporter uncovers ‘painful mistakes’ in one state’s handling of dentist errors

Arthur Kane

January 2020
Over five months, Arthur Kane, an investigative reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, immersed himself in the workings of the Nevada State Board of Dental Examiners. Kane combed through state audits and internal documents and delved into the stories of patients who were left suffering by dentists who were allowed to keep practicing. He weighed troubling allegations raised by a local dental society. In October, he emerged with a six-part series, "Painful Mistakes."

In the wake of the project’s publication, more than half of the board’s members left or lost their seats and two professional staffers were terminated. Gov. Steve Sisolak has pledged reforms.

In this Q&A, Kane describes how he tackled the reporting for the series and worked with newsroom colleagues to bring the story to life. He also offers advice to journalists who may want to take a closer look at a professional board in their state.

Oral care access problems highlighted in California news collaborative project

Yesenia Amaro

October 2019
In the years since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, California has employed Medicaid expansion and the state health insurance marketplace – Covered California – to dramatically increase health care coverage. Yet, in spite of such efforts roughly 3 million state residents remain medically uninsured. Even more – an estimated 5.2 million Californians – are dentally uninsured.

In communities throughout the state, retirees and workers at small businesses are facing particular challenges in finding dental services, reported Yesenia Amaro of The Fresno Bee and Nicole Hayden of the (Palm Springs) Desert Sun.

In this Q and A, Amaro offers insights into her coverage of dentally-uninsured Californians and shares some wisdom with colleagues on how to explore the shortage of dental coverage in their communities.

Reporter drew on life experience to report on inadequate prison dental care

Keri Blakinger

May 2019
Much remains unknown about the oral health status of more than two million incarcerated Americans, but research suggests that many dental needs go unmet behind bars.

Reporting on the problem can be challenging. But in a recent project, Keri Blakinger, who covers breaking news, prisons and the death penalty for the Houston Chronicle, found a way to document the desperate wait for dentures in Texas state prisons.

In this Q&A, Blakinger discusses her work on the stories, which culminated in the announcement by state prison officials of an innovative 3-D printing program that could bring dentures to more Texas prisoners who need them. Blakinger, who came to journalism after serving time for a drug conviction, also shares a little wisdom on the gift of rebuilding one’s life.

Free clinic provides opportunity for broader examination of access to care

Joe Lawlor

January 2019
In coverage of a free dental care day for low-income Mainers, Portland Press Herald reporter Joe Lawlor explored some of the challenges that have shaped oral health access in the state.

As he noted in his piece, new Democratic governor Janet Mills is preparing to oversee an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program. Yet, the measure, which is expected to bring health care benefits to more state residents, could fall short in addressing their longstanding dental needs, Lawlor explained in his story.  

In this Q&A, Lawlor discusses his reporting on the outlook for improved oral health care in Maine. And he shares thoughts on the value of teamwork in covering the state’s long journey toward Medicaid expansion. 

Reporter chronicles refugees’ challenges in improving oral health in their new home

Jiwon Choi

November 2018
In recent reporting for Minnesota Public Radio, Jiwon Choi explored the oral health challenges faced by refugees arriving in her state. 

In her piece, officials from resettlement agencies described their struggles in meeting the many needs of refugees within a 90-day eligibility window for government assistance. Efforts to find timely dental care for new refugees were complicated by the shortage of dentists willing to accept refugees’ Medicaid coverage, they noted.

And as Choi explained in her story, refugees like Say Paw, a Karen refugee from Myanmar now living in St. Paul, also may have unique oral health burdens linked to the lives they left behind. In the following Q & A, Choi offers insights from her reporting. She also shares advice for journalists who might want to tell a similar story their own community.

Kentucky reporter shares insights on covering cuts to state Medicaid dental coverage 

Will Wright

August 2018
In a recent story for the Lexington Herald-Leader, reporter Will Wright offered a look at the human toll of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s July decision to cut dental and vision benefits for about 460,000 state Medicaid beneficiaries.

In the wake of the dental and vision care cuts, Wright spent time with a local dentist and her staff, who had been left scrambling when their patients’ benefits suddenly disappeared. Wright also spoke with a patient worried about how her lost coverage would affect her ability to obtain a needed tooth extraction.

In this Q and A, Wright offers insights into his reporting on Kentucky’s Medicaid program. As other states eye work requirements and other changes to their programs, Wright shares advice with colleagues seeking ways to document the impact upon patients and providers.

Reporter follows hygienists' battle to treat vulnerable patients

Ana B. Ibarra

March 2018
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 this 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.

Consumer site taps data to estimate which states have healthiest teeth and gums

Jill Gonzalez

March 2018
A state's oral health status represents an interesting indicator of the overall health and economic well-being of its people. Many factors play a role in ensuring the good oral health, from the availability and cost of professional dental services to access to nutritious food and optimally fluoridated water. 

Assessing and ranking the oral health of states represents a formidable task. But for the second year in a row, a consumer finance website has taken on the challenge. In this Q&A, WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez offers insights into the metrics used and the data crunched to create WalletHub's 2018 States with the Best & Worst Dental Health report.

Gonzalez also shares some wisdom on how reporters might use the report card to take a new look at oral health in their state.

Philly journalist discusses silver diamine fluoride and other children’s health issues

Anna Nguyen

December 2017
A prominent pediatric dental organization recently issued guidelines for a treatment that can offer a painless, minimally invasive alternative to drilling and filling teeth. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) has offered a “provisional recommendation” for the use of silver diamine fluoride (SDF) to halt and manage tooth decay in children.

In this Q&A, Nguyen discusses her coverage of oral health and other topics on her wide-ranging beat. She also shares some wisdom on tapping experts to get helpful information to her audience.

Dearth of dentistry: Reporter explores how state's economic health affects its oral health

Caleb Slinkard

November 2017
The Oklahoma newspapers in the Community Newspaper Holding Inc. (CNHI) chain offered readers a series that examines the everyday challenges that many state residents face in meeting basic needs. In one recent installment, reporting team member Caleb Slinkard offered a detailed exploration of how a scarcity of dental care is impacting poor and rural Oklahomans.

He reflects upon what oral health can tell us about economic health and how budget decisions have influenced the availability of benefits, providers and fluoridated water in the state. He also shares tips that might help fellow journalists take a similar look at oral health access in their own communities.

Minn. reporter shares insights on covering the dental therapist debate

Stephanie Dickrell

July 2017
In 2009, Minnesota became the first state to adopt the dental therapist model for use statewide. Now about 70 of the new dental workers, sometimes compared to nurse practitioners, are offering preventive and restorative care in clinics and dental offices around the state.

So how are Minnesota’s dental therapists doing so far? Are they making a difference? Reporter Stephanie Dickrell of the St. Cloud Times decided to find out. In this Q and A, Dickrell offers insights into her reporting on dental needs in her community and the challenges and rewards she finds on her wide-ranging beat. She also provides tips to fellow reporters on reporting dental stories in their states.

Reporter turned on-deadline account of a dental death into more than a tragic story

Sammy CaiolaMarch 2017
Sacramento Bee health reporter Sammy Caiola worked quickly to give her readers the story about the death of a young California father from complications of a dental infection.

Her reporting began at 10 a.m. on Jan. 31 when she found the kernel of the story in an email. By that afternoon, Caiola had tracked down and visited with the man's grieving widow, interviewed a knowledgeable local dentist on the causes of dental deaths and located peer-reviewed research that added depth and context to her piece.

In this Q&A, Caiola walks us through that busy day of reporting and reflects on what surprised her most in her work on the story. She also offers tips to colleagues who might find themselves covering a dental death on deadline.

Reporter: Oral health has become important gateway to other issues on his beat 

Paul SissonNovember 2016
For low-income elders, dental care can be very hard to find. Medicare does not include routine dental benefits and seniors living on low or fixed incomes may lack the money to pay out of pocket for care. Untreated tooth decay causes pain and contributes to tooth loss, poor nutrition, social isolation and declining overall health.

In San Diego, an innovative nonprofit dental clinic that recently opened in a senior center is aiming to address the problem. Reporter Paul Sisson, who covers health care for the San Diego Union-Tribune paid a visit and provided readers with an engaging story that captured the spirit of the place and highlighted the deep needs it aims to serve. In this Q and A, Sisson talks about his work on the dental clinic feature and shares some wisdom on how he stays on top of his busy health care beat. 

Radio reporter discusses Medicaid dental coverage and how his health emergency influenced his work   

Andy MarsoOctober 2016
It is a scenario that regularly plays out in statehouses during times of fiscal austerity: funding for Medicaid dental services goes on the chopping block. A shortage of Medicaid dental providers already is major problem in many communities and dentists often blame low reimbursement rates and budget cuts for making the problem worse.

Reporter Andy Marso has been ;following the problem in Kansas. He recently used the story of a dental provider’s ongoing struggle to get needed care to poor and disabled patients to capture the worries about the latest round of anticipated cuts to the state’s Medicaid dental program.

Reporter discusses what fueled her Medicaid reporting

Maggie Clark

October 2016
Reporters can find it daunting to cover Medicaid, the huge state-administered federal program charged with providing health care benefits to more than 70 million Americans.

Maggie Clark embraced the challenge with a series for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that delved into many aspects of Florida’s troubled Medicaid system. Stories have explored the shortage of preventive and specialty care (particularly the formidable barriers faced by poor patients in accessing dental services), the struggles faced by health care providers who work with the program and the long history of efforts to reform the state’s system.

Clark’s multi-faceted project also has featured interactive graphics, unique outreach efforts and partnerships with a range of community, media and health care organizations.

Now, Clark explains how a fellowship helped to get the project off the ground and how she and her editors worked together to plan and structure the series. She also discusses lessons learned, including tips on how she sold her bosses on taking on this major project.

Unsafe anesthesia use in dental procedures for children continues to be an issue

Brooks Egerton

September 2016
In the wake of the Dallas Morning News’ seven-part Deadly Dentistry series, Texas media outlets are now following the story of yet another child left dead after a dental visit.

Daisy Lynn Torres suffered complications from anesthesia while undergoing a procedure in an Austin dental office last spring, a medical examiner recently concluded, according to the Austin American-Stateman.

The Texas State Board of Dental Examiners has opened an investigation into the death of the 14-month-old girl and a forensic dental examiner who reviewed Daisy’s records at the request of the medical examiner’s office raised questions about whether the child even needed treatment in the first place.

Brooks Egerton, who left the Dallas Morning News in a newsroom buyout since the publication of Deadly Dentistry late last year has been following the coverage. He reflected on the death and offered advice on how reporters should approach these stories.

Online reporter discusses her coverage of challenges at California’s Medicaid dental program

Ana IbarraJune 2016
Denti-Cal, California’s Medicaid dental program faces ongoing challenges in getting care to its roughly 13 million beneficiaries. Only about half the children and a quarter of the adults covered by the program are getting dental services.  A shortage of participating dentists is a major problem and there are other troubles as well.

In a recent piece for California Healthline, reporter Ana Ibarra offered a look at efforts to reform the system.

In this Q&A for AHCJ, Ibarra reflects upon the future of Denti-Cal and discusses the rest of her complex and rich beat as a web reporter for California Healthline. She also shares some advice on the value of journalism fellowships in developing skills and making connections that can help reporters excel.

How one veteran reporter is bringing a fresh eye to the health beat

David Olinger

May 2016
Denver Post reporter David Olinger describes himself as a “veteran reporter new to the health care beat.” Over the years, he has produced award-winning pieces on the struggles of wounded soldiers who were sent back to combat, the state’s foreclosure crisis and the victimization of homeowners by predatory real estate investors. He also played a key role in the Post's Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Columbine High School massacre.

These days, amid reports on teen birth rates and the implications of the theft of the powerful narcotic drug fentanyl from a local hospital, Olinger regularly picks up on stories with oral health angles.

In this Q and A, he talks about how he got interested in writing about Colorado’s dental deserts, the concerns that drove his coverage of a University of Colorado nutrition expert’s ties with Coca-Cola, and where he – and other reporters – might want to look when writing about the growing popularity of e-cigarettes.

Coverage of legislative fight over hygienists spotlights work of regional health news service

Andy MillerApril 2016
Through public fights, complicated amendments and rumors of passage, Andy Miller of Georgia Health News followed the drama of House Bill 684. And when the bill died a sudden death in the Georgia statehouse, Miller was there to let readers know.

In Georgia, a state with roughly 150 federally-designated dental provider shortage areas, the lack of oral health services is an important topic. Miller’s coverage helped highlight the deep and ongoing debate in his state over how best to meet the care needs of many vulnerable residents.

In this Q&A, Miller offers insights into how his coverage of the dental hygiene bill unfolded, and where oral health care coverage fits into the larger mission at Georgia Health News. He also shares some wisdom on how he balances his time and responsibilities at the independent nonprofit news organization.

Frontline coverage of debate over expanded use of dental therapists 

Will DraboldFebruary 2016
A news package in The Seattle Times by reporter Will Drabold took a look at how the controversy over dental therapists is unfolding in Washington.

Drabold examined the challenges faced by poor Medicaid patients in seeking dental care. He spoke with health care advocates who believe that technically-trained mid-level providers could bring much-needed care to poor and isolated communities. He also interviewed tribal leader Brian Cladoosby, whose Swinomish tribe had just defied state restrictions to hire a dental therapist. And he spoke with state dental association officials, who made it clear that they – ­like the American Dental Association – believe dental therapists lack the training to perform these expanded duties.

In this Q&A, Drabold discusses how he approached the project and what he learned in his reporting. He also offers encouraging words to other journalists who might find themselves writing about the dental therapist controversy as it unfolds in their states.

Reporting on facial reconstructive surgery offers window into how war spurs innovation

Liza Gross

February 2016
A 2014 medical piece for Discover on soldiers’ facial reconstruction came about in an indirect and unexpected fashion. The original inspiration came from a character in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” who had lost much of his face in WWI and wore a mask to conceal his injuries. 

Journalist Liza Gross wrote a short essay about the trauma associated with disfiguring facial injuries. She writes that she didn’t think too much more about it until a press conference at an American Association for the Advancement of Science conference on facial reconstruction. She decided to learn more about the state of research on facial repair. Here she shares what she learned about the field, how she reported on it and how war spurs innovations in medicine.

Reporter explains how he wove data, human stories into compelling series on dental deaths

January 2016
In early 2014, a 4-year-old Dallas boy named Salomon Barahona Jr. died after undergoing sedation for a dental procedure.

The child’s death spurred Dallas Morning News reporter Brooks Egerton to embark upon what turned out to be a major reporting project – an 18-month investigation of dental safety in the United States.

Egerton sifted through thousands of records detailing patient harm and endangerment drawn from many sources: state and federal regulators, police, coroners, academic researchers, courts, litigators, insurers, dental schools and dentists themselves.

In this Q&A, Egerton offers insights into how he wrote his "Deadly Dentistry" series.

Health writer tells how she got the story on experimental dental treatment

Andrea McDaniels

December 2015
Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea McDaniels was surprised to learn about an off-label treatment for tooth decay that some dentists are using. In the fight against decay-causing bacteria, some researchers call the agent a "silver-fluoride bullet."

They point to evidence suggesting that SDF is not only effective in halting the decay process but in preventing the development of new caries. The material is cheap and can be easily painted onto the affected tooth.

In this Q&A, McDaniels tells us more about her work on the story, and offers some insights into how she manages her busy health and medical beat at the Sun.

Los Angeles reporter talks about how she covers the ‘megaclinic’ phenomenon

Susan Abram

October 2015
In a recent story for the Los Angeles Daily News, reporter Susan Abram informed readers that once again, a city sports arena was being transformed into a massive health clinic, and once again, hundreds of dentists, optometrists, nurses and other volunteers were preparing to offer free care to people in need.

In this Q & A, Abram reflects on the things she has learned covering urban "megaclinics" over the years. And she shares some wisdom with fellow reporters on returning to an old story with new eyes.

Reporting at the nexus of health care and crime

September 2015
Reporter Tonya Alanez covers the crime beat for the Sun Sentinel, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Just the same, there are times when her beat leads her to health care stories. Last month, she filed a story (site registration required) that offered a troubling look at dentistry in South Florida. She reported on a state investigation into two dentists suspected of fraudulently billing Medicaid for dentures and extractions that frail and elderly patients may not have needed – or even received.

It wasn’t her first assignment at the intersection of dentistry and crime. A couple of summers ago, she took a look at the problem of unlicensed dentists and their unlucky victims.

Telling the stories of health care providers on the road

August 2015
Sara Schilling of the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Wash., recently offered her readers the story of local dentist Bart Roach, who combines his love of travel with his devotion for helping others.

When Roach is not taking care of his own patients and pitching in at a local clinic for the poor, he is often journeying to remote communities in faraway places to help children suffering from tooth decay and infection.

Reporter explains how she cultivated sources for story on senior dental care

July 2015
Millions of seniors in America struggle to find dental care. Hanah Cho met a few of them who were grateful to find care at a clinic run by the North Dallas Shared Ministries.

The patients’ frank accounts of their pain and relief, included in a recent feature by Cho, brought the issue home for readers of the Dallas Morning News.

Reporters’ digging reveals one of the largest scandals in Texas Medicaid program

Byron Harris

July 2015
The tip about troubles in Texas’ Medicaid dental system was part of a routine conversation. But it was enough to make Byron Harris start digging.

He and his colleagues at WFAA-Dallas spent nine months scrutinizing data, wearing out shoe leather, following up on leads and trying to get people to talk.

Their 11-part investigative series aired in 2011. The “Crooked Teeth” stories raised profoundly troubling questions about oversight of the Medicaid dental program in Texas; the millions upon millions spent on orthodontic services for beneficiaries; the suspect billing practices of many providers. The project uncovered the largest Medicaid scandals in the history of Texas. Government audits, reform efforts, lawsuits followed in its wake.

Covering the e-cigarette controversy

Sonya Collins
Sonya Collins

June 2015
Atlanta independent journalist Sonya Collins has carved a niche for herself covering the controversial world of e-cigarettes. Her feature, “When the Smoke Clears,” which appeared in Georgia State University Magazine was recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists in the 2013 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism. Attendees at Health Journalism 2015 might have heard her speak on the panel "Cutting Through the Haze of E-Cigarettes.”

Here, Collins offers some insights into how she researched and wrote that first big story and where her reporting has led her since. While there still is a lot that is unknown about the safety of these products and their use – often referred to as “vaping” – Collins shares some thoughts on how to craft informative stories about the evolving culture, research and regulations surrounding e-cigarettes.

Sociologist offers insights on health navigators, finding wider lessons in personal stories

May 2015
Trying to help her disabled sister Veronika with a dental emergency, Elizabeth Piatt found herself negotiating a labyrinth of personal feelings and Medicaid paperwork. The job of getting Veronika the care she needed was fraught with challenges. Piatt emerged from the experience with new insights into the Medicaid system that serves America’s poor, and a new sense of compassion for the patients who struggle within that system.

Elizabeth Piatt
Elizabeth Piatt

Piatt, an assistant professor and chair of the Sociology Department at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, also came out of the experience convinced of the need for a better network of health navigators to help Medicaid patients find care and services.

Piatt shared the story of her journey in a  piece entitled  “Navigating Veronika: How Access, Knowledge and Attitudes Shaped My Sister’s Care” that was featured in February’s Health Affairs.

Reporter covers dental care challenges faced by people with disabilities

February 2015
Finding dental care for people with special needs can be tough.

Elizabeth Simpson
Elizabeth Simpson

Dentists with the willingness and skills to treat them are often scarce. Medicare and Medicaid benefits are frequently inadequate. Patients who need to undergo general anesthesia in a hospital because they are frightened or physically unable to lie still in a dental chair often face particularly high barriers to getting dental treatments.

Elizabeth Simpson offered readers of The Virginian-Pilot a detailed look at this issue in a January story that centered on the experiences of a local woman and her family.

“Going to the dentist used to be a simple, routine task for Lauren McAllister, one her family took for granted since she always had good insurance,” Simpson wrote.

Tips for covering efforts to establish licensing for dental therapists

Rosalie Rayburn

January 2015
A bill in New Mexico would establish a licensing and practicing framework for midlevel oral health providers in that state. Rosalie Rayburn has been covering the efforts for the Albuquerque Journal. In this Q&A, she shares some insights into how this story is unfolding and some key information that other reporters should keep in mind.

Covering the soda tax in Berkeley and San Francisco

Tom Lochner

December 2014
In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 elections, Tom Lochner covered the debate over soda tax questions on the ballots in Berkeley and San Francisco. When the results became clear, he reported on the outcome for the Contra Costa Times.

In this Q&A, Lochner offers his insights into how the historic vote in Berkeley unfolded and he shares a few words of wisdom with reporters who may find themselves covering soda tax debates in their own communities.

Director of advocacy journalism center reflects on center's closing

October 2014
The Journalism Center on Children & Families (JCCF), formerly the Casey Journalism Center, is scheduled to close at the end of this year. Over the past 20 years, JCCF, based at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, has pursued its mission of helping reporters do a better job of telling the stories of vulnerable people, young and old. 

Journalism Center for Children & Families

Julie Drizin
Julie Drizin

Now funding is running out, as JCCF’s director Julie Drizin explained in her announcement. “The College has concluded that this Center is not sustainable in the current economic climate,” she said. “Indeed, these are very challenging times in the worlds of journalism and education.”

Over the years, the center has offered grants, fellowships and other resources that have resulted in deeper coverage of health, justice and economic issues as they relate to children and families. In keeping with the center’s mission, Drizin has also been teaching an undergraduate class at the college of journalism. Just recently, she gathered a team of student reporters to cover a free two-day dental clinic sponsored by the University of Maryland School of Public Health’s Center for Health Equity as part of a larger Health Equity Festival. The dental clinic, which was held on the university’s basketball court with support from organizations including Mission of Mercy and Catholic Charities, aimed to provide $1 million in dental care to poor and uninsured adults.

Making information on dental complaints accessible in California

Rachel Cook
Rachel Cook

September 2014
Reporter Rachel Cook’s “Dental Dangers,” series, published this summer in The Bakersfield Californian, explores a long history of complaints and lawsuits against Robert Tupac, D.D.S., who, as a board-certified prosthodontist, specializes in the restoration and replacement of teeth.

Over three decades, more than a dozen of Tupac’s patients claimed his shoddy work left them with troubles ranging from bone loss to drooling, Cook recounted in her project. Yet her reporting – done as a 2013 California Health Journalism Fellow – uncovered a state dental board system that allowed the alleged problems with the dentist to pile up outside public view. “A potential patient searching for competent dental care would never know about many of Tupac’s alleged professional shortcomings — or those of any other California dentist — without undertaking extensive and often difficult research,” Cook wrote.

Covering Medicaid’s orthodontic benefits

Sheila Hagar

August 2014
After a hint from her own dentist, Sheila Hagar started looking into concerns about the rising numbers of Medicaid kids getting braces in Washington. Hagar, who is medical and social services reporter for the Union-Bulletin, in Walla Walla, sought sources and found statistics that made her jaw drop.

“We should be taking care of people who really have a need,” a frustrated Walla Walla orthodontist, Thomas Utt, D.D.S., told her. “While his office – Walla Walla Orthodontics – is authorized to treat Medicaid-eligible children with braces,” Hagar wrote, “Utt grits his teeth at what he sees as misuse of funds and a lack of clarity over just what ‘medically necessary’ means when it comes to correcting kids’ teeth.”

Tennessean reporter investigates complaints over Medicaid dental provider

Tom Wilemon
Tom Wilemon

July 2014
Quite a few folks in Tennessee are upset right now with DentaQuest, the dental benefits company contracted to provide childrens' oral health services under the state’s Medicaid program.

Two hundred black dentists are riled that they were cut from the provider network. The state dental association has withdrawn its support. Some consumers are saying the company is making it harder for patients to get the care they need.

Company officials defend their performance, saying that screenings have increased and that the state network of 864 providers – one for every 857 patients – exceeds nationally recommended standards.

The Tennessean’s Tom Wilemon has been working to find out what's really going on and, in this Q&A, he gives an update and some additional insights into his reporting. He also shares some wisdom with others who might find themselves tackling a similar story.

Reporter takes listeners to charity dental clinic to hear from patients

Katie Hiler
Katie Hiler

July 2014
KBIA Mid-Missouri Public Radio listeners were recently offered an insightful report on the problems poor adults in the state have been facing in getting dental care.

Nearly a decade ago, Missouri eliminated funding for all Medicaid beneficiaries except children, pregnant women and the disabled. The move “left a lot of people with only bad options,” reporter Katie Hiler explained, borrowing a quote from the film “Argo.”

To illustrate the point, Hiler invited her audience along on a visit to a rare charity clinic called Smiles of Hope, run out of a converted church attic. Here Hiler offers some thoughts on what got her started on this story and how her work unfolded. She also shares some wisdom on what it takes to make a radio story come alive.

Covering Medicaid fraud and overtreatment

Becca Aaronson
Becca Aaronson

June 2014
For the past two years, Texas Tribune health writer Becca Aaronson has been covering the state’s Medicaid orthodontic scandal. A 2012 federal audit found that the Texas Medicaid and Healthcare Partnership (TMHP), a Xerox subsidiary under contract with the state Health and Human Services Commission, was “essentially rubber-stamping” dental claims. The office of the Texas Attorney General is now suing Xerox in hopes of reclaiming hundreds of millions of dollars the company allegedly paid out for medically unnecessary Medicaid claims.

Aaronson's most recent stories offered readers an update on the state investigation into allegations of widespread fraud and unnecessary treatment. Here, she shares how she covered those issues and offers tips for reporters who might want to cover possible Medicaid fraud or overtreatment in their areas. 

Maine moves toward using dental therapists to extend care

Image by Eddie Harrison via flickr.
Image by Eddie Harrison via flickr.

March 2014
Technically trained dental auxiliaries known as dental therapists have been providing care in many countries around the world for decades. 

Dental therapists already work in Alaska and Minnesota, where advocates say the new providers will help get a range of needed services including routine care, fillings and simple extractions to poor and rural communities.

Dentists’ groups have fiercely opposed the idea, saying no one but dentists should be allowed to drill or pull teeth. Now the debate is playing out in Maine, and as the state legislature mulls the dental therapist question, Joe Lawlor and his colleagues at the Portland Press Herald have been keeping readers informed.

Questions arise about oversight of pediatric dentists 

Alia Wong
Alia Wong

March 2014
The state of Hawaii continues to investigate the death of a three-year-old girl who went into a coma after visiting a dentist’s office. Reporter Alia Wong has also been following the tragic story of the death of Finley Boyle and weighed in with a long Jan. 21 piece for The Honolulu Civil Beat.

Wong brings us up to date on the kinds of questions that are being raised in the wake of the child’s death. She writes in her piece that questions are being raised about whether dentist Lilly Geyer, who was treating Finley, should have been advertising herself as a "children's dentist." She explains that “pediatric dentists do a rigorous and competitive two-year residency program in which they get training in specific skills such as child sedation while general dentists aren’t required to do a residency program.”


Reporter’s follow-up on dental reconstruction reveals the importance of a healthy smile

Marc Ramirez
Marc Ramirez

February 2014
Marc Ramirez of The Dallas Morning News recently offered readers an update on a story he began to write more than two years ago.

Robina Rayamajhi, a legally blind college student, had not let her visual disability stop her from excelling at the University of North Texas and setting her hopes on a law degree. Yet her crooked teeth were having an impact on her self-confidence. When a group of caring health care professionals from the community joined forces to help her, Ramirez documented the transformation of Robina’s smile.

Here, Ramirez shares some thoughts on how he embarked upon the story and how he developed it. He also offers some good advice to other reporters who might find themselves revisiting a story over time.

New dental coverage may strain access to care

January 2014
Michael Booth recently wrote about the worsening shortage of dental care in Colorado for The Denver Post, explaining that “hundreds of thousands of Coloradans will have new dental care benefits in 2014 under twin health-reform efforts, but state leaders now must scramble to find providers who will care for them.” It is expected that 335,000 adult Medicaid beneficiaries will gain access to dental care in the spring and that tens of thousands more will join Medicaid rolls under the Affordable Care Act expansion. In addition, thousands of children could get new dental benefits when their parents buy coverage on the state’s insurance exchange, Booth wrote. But health advocates warn that, if just a quarter of the newly enrolled Coloradans start using their dental benefits, the system will be strained. Here, Booth offers some insights into how things may play out in Colorado, as well as advice to the rest of us who are watching this issue.

Reporter follows epidemiological investigation

October 2013
When genetic testing concluded that a former patient of W. Scott Harrington contracted hepatitis C at the Tulsa oral surgeon’s office,Tulsa World reporter Shannon Muchmore was there to file the latest installment in an unfolding story she has been covering since the spring.  

The case turned out to be the first documented report of patient-to-patient transmission of the hepatitis C virus associated with a dental setting in the United States, according to Oklahoma state and local health officials. In March, officials started testing thousands of Harrington’s former patients for hepatitis and HIV after an office inspection turned up lax sanitation practices and other violations of the state’s Dental Act. Since then, more than 4,200 people have been tested at free clinics.

Covering pediatric dental benefits

Chad Terhune

September 2013
Pediatric dental benefits are among the 10 essential health benefits included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

But offering them on the new health insurance marketplaces scheduled to open Oct. 1 holds challenges for states. Should kids’ dental benefits be sold as standalone plans, separate from medical insurance as they usually are? Should they be bundled with other benefits? Embedded into policies? Is everyone required to buy them? Are parents required to buy them? Will they be affordable?

As I wrote in a recent blog post, Chad Terhune of the Los Angeles Times has done a good job of writing about the complexities of fitting pediatric dental benefits into California’s exchange, “Covered California.”

He was good enough to share his insights into the unfolding story and to offer advice to AHCJ members who might want to see how this issue is playing out in their own states.

Covering the science of water fluoridation

Kyle Hill
Kyle Hill

July 2013
Around the country fights over water fluoridation have made news in recent months.

Public health officials and dentists can show years worth of evidence that fluoride, when present at optimum levels in community water supplies, reduces tooth decay. But opponents protest that fluoride at any level is dangerous.

Late in May, Portland voters rejected a decision to fluoridate the city’s water.

Kyle Hill quickly weighed in on his Overthinking It blog for Scientific American in a piece titled "Why Portland is Wrong about Fluoride."

Hill, a freelance science writer who tackles a wide variety of topics, was good enough to share a few thoughts about his coverage.

Reporter shares experience covering investigation into dental clinics

Shannon Muchmore
Shannon Muchmore

May 2013
Shannon Muchmore, health reporter for The Tulsa World, has been leading the pack in covering allegations of lax sanitation practices at the office of oral surgeon Scott Harrington.

Amid a steady stream of reports, she took the time to share some of her insights into the complexities of the unfolding drama, including how her daily work life has changed, the level of risk faced by patients and some tips for other reporters.

Complaints to attorneys general yield sources for dental investigation

David Heath
David Heath

May 2013
Dollars and Dentists, a joint investigation by David Heath of the Center for Public Integrity and Jill Rosenbaum of PBS Frontline captured a first-place Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism.

The report, which aired last summer, explored the dearth of care for millions of poor children and adults and raised serious questions about the business practices of dental chains that serve Medicaid children and the elderly.

Mary Otto, AHCJ's oral health topic leader, caught up with Heath at Health Journalism 2013 in Boston and he shared some reflections on the making of the project.

Paying careful attention yields story on business, marketing of dental practices

Amy Jeter
Amy Jeter

April 2013
Amy Jeter of The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, looked at the impact of the financial downturn on dental practices and how the practices were working to counteract that.

She found people are getting phone calls, texts and emails from dentists to not only remind them of appointments but also to wish them a happy birthday and offering awards for referrals and deals through Groupon. Jeter shares with AHCJ a few insights on how the story evolved.

'Dollars and dentists:' Investigating the dental care crisis in the U.S.

Jill Rosenbaum
Jill Rosenbaum

September 2012
“Dollars and Dentists,” a joint project of PBS Frontline and the Center for Public Integrity, reveals the consequences of a broken dental care system and investigates how a new breed of corporate dental chains are filling the gaps.

Reporters counted at least 14 major chains, owned by private equity groups. But, they discovered that because they are largely owned or backed by private equity firms, there is little publicly available information about them.

In this piece, Frontline Producer Jill Rosenbaum shares how the investigation got started, where they found data, who the key sources were and some ideas of stories that are ripe for coverage.

W.Va. paper chronicles state's oral health problem

Deborah Crites, 50, said she numbed herself with moonshine and pulled two of  her teeth with a pair of pliers.
Lingbing Hang/Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette

May 2008
In a series of articles, reporter Eric Eyre chronicled the abysmal state of dental health in West Virginia. In clinics and private dentists' offices, he found people suffering with painful toothaches, gaping cavities, abscesses, lip cancer, gum infections and molars cracked off because of an unsuccessful attempt at do-it-yourself dentistry

During his reporting, he found that West Virginia had the highest percentage of older adults who have had all their natural teeth removed – a worse rate than adults in impoverished countries such as Madagascar, Cambodia and Gambia. He discovered tooth loss wasn't a problem exclusive to the elderly; thousands of younger West Virginians had multiple teeth extracted because of disease or decay.

And, while children were eligible for a full range of dental services, only about one of every three Medicaid-covered kids in the state visited a dentist each year. Eyre’s data analysis showed that dentists were billing the state more for extracting poor children's teeth than for cleaning them. In other words, prevention was taking a back seat to drilling and filling teeth – and taking them out.