SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – Teresa Duncan had lacked the confidence to smile since the Spring of 2016 when her dentist pulled all of her decaying bottom teeth.
“I see an unhappy person,” she said while looking in the mirror. “I don’t see me. I just see my bottom lip just caving in.”
The plan was to replace Duncan’s rotting teeth with custom dentures. After months of fittings, custom dentures would not fit in her mouth. A dentist determined she needed posts installed into her gums.
Bungled in bureaucracy, she says she ended up bounced between nine different dental professionals in six offices.
Eating even a French Fry has been a challenge for her for more than two years.
“It hurts. The worst thing is my top teeth keep hitting my gums when I chew,” she said.
Duncan relies on Denti-Cal, a state-sponsored program aimed at caring for 13 million Californians – one-third of the state’s population – half of which are kids.
But Denti-Cal has come under fire for being “broken.” California’s independent oversight agency, the Little Hoover Commission, wrote a blistering report in 2016 called “Fixing Denti-Cal.” In it, the agency wrote that “of those programs labeled by participants and beneficiaries as broken, dysfunctional or an outright mess, few have achieved the notoriety of Denti-Cal.”
The commission’s Chairman, Pedro Nava, called the program broken and bureaucratically rigid.
We brought Duncan’s case to Nava, showing her struggle to get bottom teeth.
He told us, “No state program should be operated that way. No person should have to struggle for that long a period of time.”
Nava says that because of outdated paper-based administrative and billing processes, most California dentists want nothing to do with Denti-Cal, which leads patients on sometimes impossible searches for nearby dental care.
The Department of Health Care Services which oversees Denti-Cal says many factors, including Duncan’s complicated treatment, contributed to an unusual time frame surrounding this case. They say Duncan was unreachable at times and missed appointments.
Duncan admits she missed some appointments because they were too far away, and she didn’t have transportation. She also missed phone calls because she couldn’t afford her cell phone bill.
She has empathy for others who are in the same situation, saying: “I don’t think anybody should have to go through this.”
Critics say there have been some improvements to the program since the commission’s 2016 report. However Denti-Cal remains a seriously troubled program, Nava wrote to the state in the fall.
READ: Letter To State
“They can make things easier, simple and more people can get care,” said Nava.
Duncan is fighting just to see the end of the tunnel.
“I would like to get my teeth and get them correct,” she said.
Over two years, CBS13 made 77 calls and emails to the Department of Health Care Service (DHCS), to see Duncan’s case come to completion. Finally, after going without bottom teeth for years, Duncan got her new dentures.
“I can eat again,” she said.
Duncan’s upper teeth are no longer digging into her lower gums, and her bottom lip is no longer caving in. It has restored her confidence, but not her faith in the Denti-Cal program.
“Now I have teeth again so I can smile. I’m just so happy,” said Duncan.
Nava thinks people like Duncan should not have to go through this.
“There are a lot of people out there with this problem, and they don’t get the help they deserve or in a timely matter,” she said.