HEALTH CARE HAS A CAVITY: THERE’S NO GOOD REASON OUR TEETH AREN’T COVERED

Apr 30, 2016 by

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We can’t keep pretending dental work is cosmetic. Poor oral hygiene can lead to diabetes, heart disease and stroke

, The Conversation VIA SALON.COM

 

Health care has a cavity: There's no good reason our teeth aren't covered

When we talk about the successes and shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – and health care in the U.S. 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.

It is estimated that 108 million Americans have no dental insurance, and that one in four nonelderly Americans has untreated tooth decay.

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 south central 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.

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