Meth Users' Rotten Teeth Hike Dental Bills in Jails, Prisons

Meth Users' Rotten Teeth Hike Dental Bills in Jails, Prisons

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FARMINGTON, Utah (AP) -- Increasing numbers of inmates are arriving at prisons and jails with rotted teeth.

It's called "meth mouth" -- a condition rampant among methamphetamine users -- and its taxing corrections officials' dental budgets.

Contract dentists are having to put in more time to keep up with the demand for dental visits. Some jails have a two-month waiting list.

In Salt Lake County, dental costs for jail inmates increased 30 percent between 2003 and 2004, said Jared Davis in the county's finance office.

Dental costs for county inmates: $44,756 in 2003; $58,193 in 2004.

The county does try to charge inmates a co-payment for the dental. Inmates paid nearly .12,000 of the $58,193 dental costs in 2004.

Still, Davis said, "It's a pretty dramatic increase."

Dr. Robert Anderson sees about a dozen inmates at the Davis County Jail each week. "Sometimes every one of them is a meth user," he said. He also sees them in his private practice.

His jail workload has recently increased from five hours per session to eight hours at the jail -- all because of the number of meth users. Anderson figures meth mouth costs the county as much as $3,000 a year that could have been directed to other services.

"It's going to become an issue here more than it already is," he said. "The problem is growing."

Jack Ford, spokesman for the Utah Department of Corrections, is reluctant to tie "meth mouth" to any financial burdens. "The medical area is real sensitive," he said. "But it is an ongoing problem."

"I'd say most dentists in the state are familiar with it," said Monte Thompson, director of Utah Dental Association. He plans to include an article about it in the organization's newsletter.

Much of the dental work is extraction.

"There are 28 teeth," said Dr. Richard Johnson, a dentist who works regularly at the Utah State Prison and the Utah County Jail. "There are 26 of them that need to be extracted sometimes, and sometimes you just have to dig 'em out."

A few weeks ago, Johnson pulled seven soft, black teeth out of an inmate's mouth. A week later, he pulled out four more of the patient's teeth.

Dentists in private practice and public health clinics also see young meth users who have to wear dentures.

"They look like someone shot a gun through their mouths," said Dr. Richard G. Ellis, who volunteers at Salt Lake Donated Dental Services. "It just destroys them."

Opinions differ as to what causes meth mouth.

Some dentists believe the acid in the drug eats away the teeth. Others say it's meth addicts' huge consumption of sugar-laden soda to alleviate dry mouth.

The pseudoephedrine in meth slows saliva production, Anderson said. Saliva naturally neutralizes acids and clears food from the teeth.

Decreased saliva flow allows bacteria to build up 10 times over normal levels. Without it, acids can erode tooth enamel, which in turn causes cavities.

Poor oral hygiene and neglect also might be a factor in tooth decay.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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