I am the mother of an intellectually disabled young man who turned 21 recently and will be losing his dental insurance through MaineCare. As a registered nurse, I know that neglected oral health has serious and costly consequences.

Although the state has many budget limitations, preventive dental care is money that is always well spent and deserves the attention of policymakers.

There is a significant public health need for preventive dental care among the special-needs population in Maine, who have poor oral health to begin with. Within the Tufts Dental Facilities network in Massachusetts, research featured in The Journal of the American Dental Association found that 88 percent of nearly 5,000 special-needs patients had significant cavities. An additional 32 percent had untreated cavities, 80 percent had gum disease leading to tooth loss and 11 percent had lost all their teeth. However, Maine lacks a dental care network for this vulnerable population. Legislation to correct this should start with expanding Section 21 (group home) and 29 (day program) services under MaineCare to include preventive dental care.

Of course, preventive dental care benefits everyone and reduces overall health care costs. A recent study in American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that preventive dental care is associated with fewer hospital admissions and a reduction in medical costs up to 73 percent for type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular disease and pregnancy. Preventive dental care would have prevented the 2007 death of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver of Maryland, who underwent brain surgery and a six-week hospitalization stemming from an abscessed tooth, costing well over $250,000 in 2007 health care dollars.

Private dental insurance along with a rigorous maintenance program in the group home where he is living are temporary options for assuring my son’s oral health does not degrade. Young adults can be carried on their parents’ policy until age 26. MaineCare will not pay for preventive dental care after age 21 unless an individual lives in an intermediate care facility. MaineCare willingly pays for costly dental procedures under general anesthesia to correct problems that could have been prevented. MaineCare also pays for dental-related emergency room visits.

A research brief published by the American Dental Association found that nationwide, 42 percent of these visits were for untreated cavities and the patient merely received prescriptions for antibiotics and pain medication. Researchers calculated the national health care dollars spent in 2010 on treating preventable dental problems in the ER was $867 million to $2.1 billion, based on variable cost estimates of average dental ER visits. Legislation must correct these unsustainable practices.

Poorly constructed policies do not only affect those who are vulnerable and depend on the state for service. They affect taxpayers. Many Maine residents who lack preventive dental coverage may be unaware that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act leaves out any requirement for adult dental coverage, making it optional for employers, individuals and state governments through Medicaid. According to researchers Kamyar Nasseh, Marko Vujicic and Amanda O’Dell, most of the nation’s 5.3 million adults gaining extensive dental benefits through Obamacare will gain it through Medicaid expansion in states providing extensive adult dental benefits.

Many more adults gaining dental benefits by moving into Medicaid programs live in states that offer very limited or emergency benefits only, such as Maine. Legislators must prioritize preventive dental care for Maine residents and address how reimbursement to dental professionals will be updated.

Cindy Lynch-McNett works at Parkview Adventist Medical Center and Midcoast Hospital in Brunswick. She will complete a BS in nursing through the University of Maine at Fort Kent in May.