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Kentucky reporter shares insights on covering cuts to Medicaid dental coverage Date: 09/10/18

Will Wright

By Mary Otto

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.

The Republican governor announced the cuts after a federal judge blocked his plan to overhaul the state’s Medicaid program by requiring recipients to work or volunteer and pay monthly benefits. In the wake of the dental and vision care cuts, Wright spent time with a local dentist, Misty Clark, and her staff, who had been left scrambling when their patients’ benefits suddenly disappeared. Wright also spoke with one patient, Lynda Joseph, a part-time Wal-Mart worker 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 some advice with colleagues seeking ways to document the impact upon patients and providers.

Q: Do you have any updates on the situation with dental care for these Medicaid adults in Kentucky?

A: Gov. Matt Bevin's administration reinstated dental and vision care for Medicaid adults about 20 days after they were cut. Bevin's legal battle to change the Medicaid program is ongoing, and he has said that if he loses, he'll end expanded Medicaid in Kentucky. About 400,000 Kentuckians now have insurance because of that expansion.

Q: As you wrote, Bevin defended the cuts as necessary to save money. The move turned out to be controversial, though. Can you tell us a little more about the debate?

A: When you cut dental and vision coverage for some of the state's most vulnerable people, of course that will be controversial. I think many people found the cuts to be more of a posturing move than a practical one. In Eastern Kentucky, in particular, some dental practices rely on people having those benefits in order to keep their businesses afloat. So when you took these benefits away, there was a real possibility that small businesses, as well as patients, would suffer. That's something nearly everybody, no matter their political party, could see as problematic.

Q: Do you have advice for fellow reporters trying to stay abreast of potential changes to Medicaid in their states and communities?

A: There are many reporters who know more about this than I do, but I think it is important to tell the stories of providers and patients who would be impacted by changes to Medicaid programs. In some areas, health care is a crucial part of the local economy, and cutting people off from Medicaid benefits could potentially have negative impacts on those economies. So in telling these stories, I think it's interesting to see all the potential implications, both on individuals and on economies and small businesses. I think having that approach could help folks on both sides of the aisle understand how important these changes could be.

Q: Were there any sources who were particularly helpful to you in reporting this story?

A: The dental practice I featured was the most important source for this story. For stories about big changes to government programs, it's important to put things in perspective — to put a face it. The fact that this small business would allow a reporter to come in and feature them is gracious, and also shows that local communities are engaged and impacted by the goings-on in Frankfort.

Q: What surprised you most in your reporting?

A: The dental practice I featured had to reschedule more than half of its appointments because of the cuts to dental and vision. I assumed the cuts would have a big impact, but I didn't expect a clinic to lose more than half of its appointments. I think that shows how potentially devastating these cuts could be from a small business perspective.

Q: The tagline on your story says you are a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the Ground Truth Project. Can you tell us a little more about that program?

A: Report for America is a nonprofit aiming to boost local news coverage throughout the country, despite – or maybe in spite of – all the financial struggles in the journalism world. Through donors, they help cover the salaries of reporters that newsrooms may otherwise not be able to afford, typically young or “emerging” reporters. I was lucky enough to be one of the first three Report for America corps members. The other two in my class are based in neighboring West Virginia, and we're all focused on telling important stories in Central Appalachia.