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ER Visits for Dental Woes Rising

The number of Floridians treated in hospital emergency departments for tooth problems that could have been treated in a dental office or clinic -- or better yet, prevented altogether -- rose to more than 139,000 in 2012, according to a study released Wednesday.

The total was up by 8,000 over the year before, the Florida Public Health Institute reported.

The number of people seeking care rose in all categories: not just the uninsured, but also those who have health insurance through employers, Medicare and Medicaid.  Most private and public health-insurance programs do not include dental coverage.

In a release, FPHI Executive Director Roderick King said the numbers make a compelling case for expanding access to primary dental care.

"Hospital emergency departments represent the most expensive source of medical care and they are poorly equipped to treat dental conditions," he said in the release. "These kinds of numbers, and the stories of human suffering they represent, are a forceful argument for making increased access to primary dental care a priority in Florida."

The FPHI data showhospital charges for dental care exceeded $141 million, up 22 percent. However, it was unclear whether the amounts listed as "charges" had any relationship to the amounts actually paid by patients or taxpayers or how much of the bill was written off.

Martha Harbin, spokeswoman for FPHI, said the data for the report came from the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which reports charges rather than revenue. "The only way to get that (amount received) would be to call every hospital in Florida," she said.

FPHI, based in West Palm Beach, conducted the study through a grant from the DentaQuest Foundation, established by a dental benefits management company based in Boston.

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.