Recently, seniors in Iowa, Michigan and Tennessee have mailed toothbrushes to congressional candidates with the message, “I Have Teeth and I Vote.” Healthcare organizations, led by Oral Health America, are leading a campaign called “Demand Medicare Dental” that advocates for Medicare to include oral health. On the campaign’s website, citizens of these states were able to research their congressional candidate’s views on this matter and encouraged to contact candidates to voice their support for the dental campaign.
So why should Congress expand Medicare to include dental coverage? Unknown to many retiring Americans, traditional Medicare does not cover routine dental checkups, cleanings, fillings and dentures. According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a minuscule 12 percent of older Americans have some type of dental insurance. Furthermore, Johns Hopkins reports that Medicare beneficiaries spend about $328 a year in dental expenses, with 7 percent of beneficiaries spending more than $1,500. In the most extreme circumstances, older Americans are forced to travel to Mexico for more economical care.
Consequently, these types of financial barriers have greatly contributed to seniors suffering from tooth decay and periodontal disease. What makes this even more problematic is that deficient oral health care only makes other medical problems worse. For example, poor oral health can lead to difficulty eating and thus inadequate nutrition, which only exasperates health conditions like diabetes and hypertension. In addition, the bacteria which causes gum disease has a relationship with pneumonia, which causes more people to visit the hospital.
Fortunately, there is a proposal to expand Medicare Part B (outpatient services) to include oral health care. This program would be financed by small beneficiary monthly premiums and taxes. While Congress is usually loath to pass legislation that increases spending, I would be curious to learn how dental coverage through Medicare could reduce other healthcare-related costs. Amber Willink, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said, “As a consequence of avoidable dental problems, the Medicare program bears the cost of expensive emergency department visits and avoidable hospitalizations. It’s lose-lose.”
However, there is good news. Americans want change!
According to a Families USA survey, a whopping 86 percent of likely voters support including dental benefits with Medicare. Furthermore, according to the Health Policy Institute and the American Dental Association Practice Institute, 71 percent of dentists agree that Medicare should include dental coverage. The survey even indicates that a majority of dentists agree to abide by regular Medicare regulations.
Clearly, there is momentum for greater dental access for our nation’s elderly population. Look no further than our elected officials on Capitol Hill who are already supportive of expanding Medicare to include dental coverage.
Undecided members of Congress should be asking themselves why dental care is any less important than a yearly physical.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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