When we talk about the successes and shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — and health care in the US in general — little attention is given to dental care.
While the ACA defines dental coverage as an essential benefit for those under 18, insurers aren’t required to offer dental coverage for adults. Medicare, the nation’s largest insurer, doesn’t cover routine dental work. And coverage for adults through Medicaid varies from state to state.
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Oral health isn’t just about nice teeth. As the surgeon general noted in a 2000 report, oral health is intimately connected to general health and can be implicated in or exacerbate diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and complications during pregnancy.
The absence of comprehensive dental care exacts a toll on millions of Americans in terms of poor health, pain and the social stigma associated with bad teeth.
People Desperately Need Dental Care
In 2003 and 2004 (pre-Obamacare), I conducted a national study of uninsured Americans in southcentral Illinois, northern Idaho, the Mississippi delta, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and in eastern Massachusetts.
I asked nearly 150 interviewees: “If President Bush were to declare universal health care for everyone starting tomorrow, what is the first problem you would take care of?” The most common answer by a landslide echoed this respondent’s: “I’ll be waiting outside the dentist’s office at 5:00 in the morning waiting for it to open.”
Many of the people I interviewed lived with untreated diabetes, asthma or even cancer, yet their oral health problems presented the greatest challenges to their quality of life.
Recently I returned to these communities to reinterview the people I’d met over a decade earlier. Very little has changed. While the majority of the people I interviewed now had health care coverage of some sort (for nearly 20 percent of them, it was as a consequence of becoming sufficiently disabled to be eligible for Social Security), very few had managed to secure dental coverage.
Then and now, people told me about visiting emergency rooms in hopes of alleviating pain or using addictive pain medications to make it through the day. People even told me that they had resorted to pulling out their own teeth.
Take Misty, for instance. When I met her 12 years ago in Mississippi, she was a “dirt poor” (her words) married mother of five, and she was living with diabetes, domestic violence and excruciating headaches. Despite all of these quite serious problems, she told me that she was more troubled by her bad teeth than by anything else. In fact, Misty told me that she’d had such bad toothaches that she pulled her own teeth. When I asked her how she can face the pain of pulling out her own teeth, she said:
[the infected tooth] hurts so bad … it’s a relief just to get it out of there.… I’ve gone two weeks with just being able to eat soup, because they are just so bad.
By 2016 Misty had left her abusive husband, moved to Arkansas and was accepted onto disability (SSI), which allowed her to get health care coverage through Medicaid. Still, however, she suffered because of her teeth.
It can be very hard to find dentists who accept Medicaid, and when Misty finally did, she had the rest of her teeth — 25 in all — pulled in one day.
Misty’s situation isn’t uncommon. I have met women and men of various ages who, like Misty, have pulled their own teeth. I’ve also met people who were able to get part of their dental needs taken care of during brief periods of Medicaid coverage but then were left with unfinished treatment when the coverage ended.
Insurance Stops at Teeth
Even though the link between dental health and overall health is clear, insurance plans tend to ignore teeth.
As health insurance began to appear to appear in the US — initially in the 1920s and then more widely during World War II and in the postwar era — dentistry wasn’t part of the standard package of covered services.
As the nation’s largest insurer, Medicare plays an important role in shaping health care coverage norms. Medicare does not cover dental care. Today, according to government estimates, 70 percent of seniors lack dental coverage.
Since Medicare doesn’t cover dental, Dr. David Kroll, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, argues that this “inertia spilled over into the ACA.”
Americans who purchase dental plans typically find that the plans aren’t cheap, and often don’t cover much beyond routine preventative care. Plans often require hefty copays for procedures beyond preventative care and no or very limited coverage for dentures, bridges or periodontic work.
The ACA provided for an expansion of Medicaid eligibility, though not all states accepted the offer of federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage. Even in the states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA, strict limits on oral health care remain for most low- and moderate-income Americans.
There is one bright spot: children’s dental coverage is a required benefit included on all ACA compliant plans, and Medicaid as well. According to national calculations of the Health Policy Institute and the American Dental Association, dental care utilization among Medicaid-enrolled children increased from 35.3 percent in 2005 to 48.3 percent in 2013.
Oral Health Isn’t Just About Nice Teeth
In the absence of coherent oral health services, too many Americans end up like Gina, a young Idaho woman who holds her hand in front of her mouth while she talks so that no one will see her rotted teeth. She can’t even get a job as a telemarketer because she cannot speak distinctly enough to be hired.
Many Americans incorrectly assume that rotten teeth are the product of bad decision-making; if someone had just brushed and flossed then they’d have nice teeth. But routine dental care — think of the twice-yearly checkups that are routine for people with dental insurance — keeps teeth healthy and can catch problems when they are easy to treat.
The reality is that tooth decay signifies poverty in pernicious ways. Without expanding insurance to cover oral health, millions of Americans will continue to live with pain, stigma and the risks of systemic diseases that could be averted through an accessible and integrated system of dental care.