Affordable Dental Health Care for Veterans, Children and Others Should Be a Right | Commentary
As our national focus remains firmly trained on health care, there remains an important element that has long been overlooked — oral health. Millions of low-income children and adults go each year without seeing a dentist. As many as 1 in 3 Americans do not have dental coverage. One in 4 adults age 65 and older have lost all of their teeth.
Access to dental care is about much more than a nice smile. It’s about rescuing thousands of Americans from unbearable pain and keeping countless more from dealing with the hiring discrimination that comes from having lost half or more of their teeth. It’s about maintaining overall health and self-confidence. It’s about avoiding the increased risk of diabetes, digestive problems and poor birth outcomes that go along with tooth decay. In some very tragic cases, it’s about saving lives.
We remember Deamonte Driver from Prince George’s County, whose early death eight years ago served as a wake-up call to the desperate need for more attention to oral health. Twelve-year-old Deamonte first suffered from a basic, if frustrating, toothache. Deamonte’s mother, as hard as she tried, could not find a dentist who would accept her family’s Medicaid coverage. Without the dental care he needed, bacteria spread to his brain.
Since Deamonte’s death, professional organizations, public health advocates and concerned community members have joined together to strengthen the oral health safety net in Maryland and nationally. Through expanded coverage and increased Medicaid participation among providers, more children have access to a dentist than ever before.
Even with those improvements, tooth decay remains the most common chronic childhood disease, and the accompanying dental pain affects children’s academic performance and quality of life. It results in millions of hours of missed school for our youth, missed work for adults and lost productivity each year. It forces trips to emergency rooms at enormous expense to American taxpayers — and those patients frequently leave with the underlying oral health conditions still untreated.
What is most exciting and most frustrating is that many of these circumstances are entirely preventable with regular access to dental care. As a result, oral health remains one of the best investments we can make in improving overall health. We strongly support the advancements that have been made so far, but there is much more to do.
To start, Congress must act boldly. We are again introducing the Comprehensive Dental Reform Act to increase access to dental care for millions of Americans. Simply put, the groups that need care the most are the least likely to get it. Our bill makes it more likely that those who are underserved will have access to the care they need and deserve.
First, we need a more robust workforce of dental providers to practice in underserved communities. Forty-seven million Americans live in dental health professional shortage areas, where access to care is compromised by an insufficient number of providers. Our bill would expand scholarship and loan repayment opportunities for professionals who commit themselves to working in underserved communities. It would also encourage participation in Medicaid among existing providers.
Expanding the workforce is only one part of the solution. That’s why our bill would also expand dental health insurance. Millions of Americans do not have dental coverage and cannot afford the out-of-pocket costs to see a dentist. This bill expands coverage to veterans and people with Medicare and Medicaid. It would also make oral health services an essential health benefit for adults in marketplace plans.
We must make affordable, high-quality dental care available to people where they live and work through increased support for dental services at places such as community health centers and school-based clinics. We must also expand access through mobile and portable services that are already making a difference in both rural and urban areas and settings such as nursing homes.
For children and adults alike, dental health is critical to overall health. With a strong dental workforce, expanded coverage, more places people can go to seek affordable care, and an increased investment in oral health research, we hope to prevent further needless tragedies and give every American an opportunity for a healthy future.
Our goal is simple: Create access to affordable oral health care for all. It is the most cost-effective investment we can make for the well-being of the American people. In this great nation we can do much better, and we can’t afford to wait. Let’s address the dental crisis in America today.
Sen. Bernard Sanders is an independent from Vermont; Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is a Democrat from Maryland.