Research-Driven Policy | Fix Medi-Cal Dental Care Case Study

Informed policymaking leads to commonsense solutions. The Children’s Partnership has engaged in on-the-ground state and national evidence-based research to create a robust policy and advocacy agenda that has already made major gains for the oral health of California’s children.

In early 2013, TCP issued a brief, “Fix Medi-Cal Dental Coverage, Half of California Kids Depend on It,” in which we highlighted stories of real families who faced barriers to getting needed dental care and provided practical solutions to addressing the gaps in care these children face. In California and across the country, oral health needs rank as the number one chronic health problem for children. Additionally, over half of California’s children are enrolled in Medi-Cal, which provides low-income children with dental coverage. Recognizing the critical role Medi-Cal plays in access to oral health care for children, a few months later we conducted an informal “secret shopper” survey of the state’s Medi-Cal dental program. The survey found that, too often, families had difficulty finding a dentist to treat their child. A key finding was that, even when providers accepted Medi-Cal-enrolled patients, many denied some or all services for younger children. 

In late 2014, a California state audit confirmed our findings: Medi-Cal was failing to meet the dental care needs of the state’s most vulnerable children. TCP’s findings were used extensively in the audit and our recommendations were considered during testimonies to policymakers, in addition to being included in a final report developed by the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency.

The insights we gained through research allowed us to create a comprehensive agenda to improve Medi-Cal’s dental program and make it work for California’s 5.6 million children enrolled in the program. As a result, state policymakers and the administration are paying more attention to the preventive care needs of young children and are recognizing the need to do more to bring dental care to where children are in the community. A Dental Director has been hired to create and implement a statewide oral health plan; the most recent Medi-Cal waiver includes a dental component; and several pieces of legislation and budget items have been enacted to address the oral health crisis of California’s most vulnerable children.