Tens of thousands of Californians with disabilities require special accommodations for dental care, but only 14 centers in the state can treat them.
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Update: This story was updated May 17, 2022 to reflect the most recent percentage of dentists in the state who accept Medi-Cal.
The first time Namirah Jones visited the dentist at age 5, her meltdown brought the office to a halt. Her mother, Mia Costley, her grandmother and a dental assistant held her down while she screamed. The dentist couldn’t even get a mirror in her mouth.
“That’s when it was determined that no dentist could ever work on her; she would have to be put to sleep,” Costley said from their apartment in Corona.
Jones, now 19, has severe autism and an intellectual disability. She’s among tens of thousands of patients across the state whose disabilities — ranging from cognitive and physical disabilities like autism and cerebral palsy to complex health conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s — require sedation during dental procedures, making basic dental care largely inaccessible.
A typical dental office cannot perform general anesthesia nor can it accommodate other disabilities requiring wheelchair lifts or other specialized equipment.
Instead, disabled patients languish on waiting lists for years at the few places that can see them — usually dental schools. When they get an appointment, it’s frequently a financial hardship requiring time off of work for caregivers, long drives from remote areas of the state, overnight hotel stays and out-of-pocket surgical fees.
“For more serious procedures people can be waiting for a year, which if you think about it, living with dental pain for a year is like torture,” said Tony Anderson, executive director of Valley Mountain Regional Center in Stockton. Regional centers oversee the coordination and delivery of services for Californians with disabilities.
The situation is untenable, said California Dental Association president Ariane Terlet. The association is asking the Legislature to include $50 million in the budget to build special needs clinics and surgery centers across the state.
“The state is responsible for ensuring access to dental care for patients with special health care needs,” Terlet said. “If California is serious about its commitment to health equity, people with special health care needs must be provided timely access to dental care.”
Jones is non-verbal and, like many people with autism spectrum disorder, is hypersensitive to certain sights, sounds and sensations, making the dentist’s office a nightmare.
In 2019, she began touching her mouth repeatedly. Her mother worried she was in pain and called Loma Linda University School of Dentistry, where she had previously been able to get her teeth cleaned under sedation. This time, they said her weight gain made the procedure too risky.
UC San Diego said Jones,