Dental Care is Health Care

It's a moral imperative that Congress expand dental benefits for Americans.

Person Receiving Dental Care

The dental coverage crisis in the U.S. has long been swept under the rug by Congress, and the inability of millions of Americans to pay for even the most basic dental procedures has debilitating and inhumane consequences. In 2019, 74 million Americans, or nearly 25% of the U.S. population, had no dental insurance. This problem was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which left millions without work and uninsured or underinsured. It’s a moral imperative that Congress expand dental benefits for Americans and close this essential health care gap.

Out of Control Dental Costs

The cost for even the most basic and common dental procedures in the U.S. is staggering. 

The average cost of a dental implant in the U.S. is $2,500, which far outpaces any wealthy nation. The average out-of-pocket spending on dental services among people in the U.S. is close to $300 per visit, and just over $600 a year. In addition, only half of all Americans have dental covered in their health insurance plans. Other wealthy nations, such as the U.K. and Germany, have universal health care systems that cover dental.

Those with Medicare also often have difficulty accessing dental insurance. Nearly half of all Medicare beneficiaries, or 24 million people, do not have any dental coverage, which has to be privately purchased. Nearly half of Medicare beneficiaries have also not seen a dentist within the past year, with higher rates with Americans who are Black (68%) or Hispanic (61%), have low incomes (73%), or who are in fair or poor health (63%).

A Dentist’s Perspective 

An op-ed by dentist and Virginia Delegate Ibraheem Samirah describes the devastating impact of unaffordable dental care. 

Samirah’s patient, an older woman covered by Medicare and suffering from cancer, came in after several of her front teeth broke. To her astonishment, the surgery that she needed wasn’t covered by Medicare and the out-of-pocket cost of the procedure would be $5,000. This most likely meant she would have to go without the procedure and go the rest of her life without being able to maintain a healthy diet and being able to properly smile.

Countless Americans face similar challenges every year, either going bankrupt in order to get the dental care that they need or letting their medical conditions worsen.

Worsening Health Conditions

There’s growing evidence that dental problems can worsen other health conditions. In particular, dental problems can severely worsen other chronic conditions, like diabetes or heart disease, that many Americans suffer from. Dental infections can be painful and can sometimes even be life-threatening when coupled with other health conditions. That’s particularly troublesome when paired with the fact that nearly one-third of Americans didn’t visit a dentist in the past year and that includes about half of Americans 65 and older.

“America does not treat the mouth, the most voluntarily used part of a human, as a part that needs to be kept healthy for life,” Ibraheem Samirah said in his op-ed. 

Let’s put it clearly: dental care is health care and it should be covered as such. 

Covering All Americans

A common-sense solution to stem dental undercoverage would be to expand the Medicare program to include dental care, which would provide dental benefits to an additional 24 million older Americans. 

The policy is immensely popular with the American public. A recent poll from Data for Progress found that 86% of Americans, including over two-thirds of Republicans, support adding dental, hearing, and vision benefits to Medicare. 

The White House alone does not have the authority to expand the Medicare program on its own. And despite this popularity, Congress has yet to commit and act on expanding Medicare benefits to include dental. That is why it is so important to keep up the pressure on federal lawmakers to pass legislation to expand these benefits. 

The American Dental Association has spent large enormous sums lobbying Congress to oppose dental Medicare benefits.  We must join together to stand up to the American Dental Association and other lobbying efforts. It’s as simple as this: passing Medicare dental expansion will benefit older folks across this country by lowering their health care costs and ensuring that they can obtain the life-saving dental care they need. 

But this is only the start. A national single-payer health care program would ensure that every American, not just seniors, have access to health care, including dental. In order to ensure that all Americans have adequate access to dental care, we must continue the fight to get Congress to pass Medicare for All.