In Depth: Root of the problem - KMSP-TV

In Depth: Root of the problem

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It's the epidemic you haven't heard of before. Tens of thousands of Minnesotans are hurting, but it can take weeks to get the kind of medical help they really need. So instead, they're turning to a safety net that's costing the public millions.

When you've lost your job, don't have insurance and your mouth is burning with pain, what do you do?

Josh took ibuprofen and rinsed his mouth with mouthwash to help dull the pain from his toothache. After the home remedy quit working, he came to the emergency room -- and that's just one example of the troubling trend seen in emergency rooms across the state.

At Regions Hospital in St. Paul, more than 1,800 people walked into the emergency room last year for treatment of every kind of toothache or infection you can imagine -- but all the doctors there can do is give antibiotics and something for the pain that will last only between 2-6 hours.

In 2011, Hennepin County Medical Center saw more than 5,700 people in the E.R. for dental pain.

By law, hospitals can't turn anyone away from their emergency rooms, no matter the ailment or whether they have the means to pay or not.

Here in the metro, one study tracked 10,000 dental-related visits in just one year. Since an emergency room visit can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, the bill totaled nearly $5 million -- and the tab is often paid with public money.

Yet, emergency room treatments do nothing to treat the underlying problem, which could be remedied by something as simple as pulling a tooth. A dentist can do that for $150.

Dr. Dan Shannon volunteers at free dental clinics. Earlier this summer, more than a 160 people showed up for one such clinic in St. Paul -- and 70 of them had teeth pulled.

Some of people going to the free clinic even have insurance through Medicaid, like one woman named Linda. She really needed to have that tooth pulled, but she couldn't find a dentist who'd do it.

Why is that? Because there are not enough providers that accept state health care or participate in public programs. In fact, only about 20% of Minnesota dentists will see patients who are on Medicaid.

A person who is down on their luck learns to live with the pain, but the longer someone ignores a problem, the more likely it could turn into something life-threatening.

Some people who have serious tooth infections need to be put in the hospital because their tongues begin to swell and could blocks their airway and they can't breathe.

Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis had a diabetic patient come into the ER with an untreated tooth ache that turned into a flesh-eating infection. The person spent months in intensive care, and the bill was in the neighborhood of $1 million.

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