RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-State lawmakers are taking steps to expand access to dental care for low-income Virginians.

Last summer, the state’s Medicaid program began offering dental care to nearly one million adult members. Following the massive expansion, Virginia is increasing pay for providers for the first time in more than a decade in hopes of expanding access to care.  

Dr. Randy Adams, a pediatric dentist in Richmond, said it currently takes roughly a month to get an appointment but he’s hoping to see that delay drop if more providers sign up to take on Medicaid patients. 

“It matters because dental care is a part of overall health,” Adams said. 

State data shows the number of dentists accepting Medicaid patients has fluctuated over the last ten years but, over the last five years, numbers have generally dropped. The total has decreased by 137 providers since the 2017 peak of 2,031, according to the Virginia Department of Medicaid Assistance Services. 

After the state expanded adult dental benefits in 2021, former Governor Ralph Northam wrote a letter to 3,900 Virginia Dental Association members asking them to accept patients. DMAS says only five more providers started accepting Medicaid since then.

Adams said dentists were losing money on services because reimbursement rates were so low. As of July 1, Virginia increased how much dentists get paid by 30 percent.

“Well not it’s not enough but it’s a good start if you consider we haven’t had an increase in 17 years and the cost of doing dentistry has gone up 60 percent,” Adams said. 

Dr. Olivia Stallard, a dentist in Wise County, expects the biggest impact will be seen in rural areas, where many patients rely on free pop-up clinics as a last resort. 

“It’s going to change a lot of people’s lives,” Stallard said. 

According to data from DMAS, 165,140 adult Medicaid members have received dental services since the expansion a year ago. That’s less than 20 percent of 930,000 total eligible adults in Virginia. 

In Southwest Virginia, Stallard said a lot of providers either dropped Medicaid or stopped accepting new patients. She said it wasn’t feasible for many to take on more and keep their doors open.

Stallard hopes increasing reimbursement rates will turn things around. 

“It’s sad because they have this benefit but they don’t have anywhere to use it,” Stallard said. “The closest one that I can think of where they are accepting new patients is at least an hour away.”