How do we ensure that all of our citizens can access this highly efficient, low-cost benefit? First, we ought to take stock of whats working. The governments tax policy toward health benefits is arguably the biggest reason why people have dental insurance today. If health benefits were taxed, as some in Congress propose, millions of Americans could be forced to drop their dental coverage in order to protect their families against costly medical emergencies. This would undermine the good oral health so many Americans currently enjoy and create added barriers for those whom health care reform is intended to help.
Since thats not the direction we want to go, lawmakers should preserve the current tax treatment of employer-sponsored health plans.
Secondly, we can reach the majority of those who lack dental insurance not by some broad-brush policy pronouncements, but by recognizing that dental care (and dental benefits, too) work differently than medical care. Physicians spend most of their time treating ongoing diseases and illnesses; dentists focus on preventing disease and restoring good dental health. Similarly, the primary function of medical insurance is to pay for treating sick patients, while dental insurance emphasizes regular check-ups and preventive services that avoid the need for costly treatments.
Government should take a page from its own playbook by instituting new incentives for reaching the 130 million who lack dental coverage. One way is to provide refundable dental benefits tax credits or a tax deduction to individuals and small businesses as an incentive to purchase dental coverage. Low-income individuals who still cannot afford to purchase dental coverage should be eligible for a government subsidy to pay for their premium.
There is still more work to do in oral health. But if were serious about giving all Americans access to good health care, including dental care, we should build on a delivery system thats been proven to work.
Kim Volk is president and CEO of Delta Dental Plans Association.