|Grafton, West Virginia|
It's an old story. Poor rural whites depend on the government but try to destroy it by voting for the worst people they can find. Republicans exploit their ignorance and bigotry to get them to vote against their own self-interest. It's hard to feel sorry for them.
Lynnel Beauchesne’s dental office hugs a rural crossroads near Tunnelton, W.Va., population 336. Acres of empty farmland surround the weathered one-story white building; a couple of houses and a few barns are the only neighbors. But the parking lot is full. Some people have driven hours to see Beauchesne, the sole dentist within 30 miles. She estimates that she has as many as 8,000 patients. Before the office closes at 7 p.m., she and her two hygienists will see up to 50 of them, not counting emergencies.
About 43 percent of rural Americans lack access to dental care, according to the National Rural Health Association, and West Virginia, among the poorest and most rural states, is at the center of the crisis. All but six of the state’s 55 counties include federally designated “Health Professional Shortage Areas,” “Medically Underserved Areas” or both.
One seemingly obvious solution is to persuade more dentists and other oral-health providers to come to places like West Virginia, a goal of various public efforts. The federal National Health Service Corps program, for example, offers up to $50,000 in loan assistance to doctors and dentists willing to work two years in a designated shortage area. And several states have passed or considered legislation authorizing “dental therapists” — midlevel providers akin to nurse practitioners — to provide certain kinds of primary dental care in areas where dentists are scarce.
[A]dding more providers will not solve the problem of rural oral health. People don’t go to the dentist if they can’t afford to, no matter how many dentists there are. “Affordability is the big thing,” said Richard Meckstroth, chair of the department of dental practice and rural health at West Virginia University.
And affordability cuts both ways. Recruiting more providers into shortage areas can compound the problem, said Meckstroth, putting local dentists into tougher financial straits by increasing competition for a relatively small pool of paying patients. The dentists who arrive under loan forgiveness programs also tend to leave after their two-year obligation is up, what Meckstroth calls a “revolving door” that deprives patients of continuity of care.
According to the state’s Bureau for Public Health, only 40 percent of adults in West Virginia have access to dental benefits of any kind, compared with about 65 percent of working-age adults nationwide.While the state’s Medicaid program covers preventive care for children, adults get no coverage except for extractions or treatment for infections. Medicare offers no dental benefits, either. As a result, according to the West Virginia Oral Health Coalition, 43 percent of West Virginians ages 55 to 64 have lost six or more teeth because of disease or decay; 61 percent of residents older than 65 without a high school diploma have lost all their teeth.
The lack of affordability and access to dental coverage in West Virginia is of course tied to the state’s overall economic precariousness. Bruce Cassis, a dentist who practices in Fayetteville, said access to high-quality dental insurance in his area has declined along with the fortunes of coal. “Less than 5 percent of my patients are affiliated with the coal industry,” Cassis said. “Thirty years ago, they used to be 60 percent of my patient base.” Today, the major employer in his region is the county school board. “They have the best insurance in the area.”
The same is true for the Perrines and Beauchesne, whose best-insured patients typically have government jobs, such as with the school district or the fire department.
Still, the dental-care crisis in rural America is closely linked to the broader economic challenges in the parts of the country that have not yet caught up in this recovery. “How you improve access in rural America,” says Meckstroth, “is to get people jobs.”
Bringing jobs, of course means (i) accepting the reality that the coal industry is moribund, and (ii) an area must be attractive to new business, often those that would be relocating from elsewhere. This, of course, where West Virginia's (and much of Southwest Virginia) embrace of ignorance, racial bigotry and religious extremism and hate makes the likelihood of businesses moving to the area remote. Meanwhile, those suffering continue to embrace the very things and politicians that have brought on their misfortune.