Dental care key to health reform – National Consumers League

Providing preventative health care is one of the most important strategies for lowering our nation’s health costs. We hear a lot about the 46 million Americans without health insurance, but rarely do we hear that more than twice that lack dental insurance.

The case for dental coverage is the same as for health care. People without health care coverage often get sick with illnesses that could be treated at far less cost if caught early. When it comes to dental care, kids with minor tooth problems may end up with dental disease for the rest of their lives. This can hurt their ability to stay in school or get a job. Adults with missing teeth find it hard to get jobs as well.

But poor dental health can also kill you. The Washington Post ran a story about Deamonte Driver, a 12-year old who died of complications stemming from a toothache that could have been cured by an $80 tooth extraction. Deamonte’s family had lost its Medicaid coverage, and few dentists would even take Medicaid patients anyway. Bacteria from the tooth spread to Demonte’s brain, leading to hospitalization and two operations. The total cost of the hospital care was about $250,000, and the hospital was still unable to keep him alive.

The National Consumers League, with our long history of work on health care, has joined with several other groups including the American Dental Education Association, the Dental Health Foundation, and Oral Health America, in a campaign to underscore the importance of including dental care in health care reform. The groups have sent an open letter to Congress asking for recognition of these facts:

  • Dental conditions become more serious and are more costly to treat without intervention.
  • Untreated dental disease can have fatal and costly consequences.
  • Access to dental insurance is extremely difficult for the nation’s poorest. Half of all states’ Medicaid plans provide no or extremely limited dental coverage.
  • 130 million Americans, including 16 million children and 80 percent of seniors, lack dental insurance coverage. This is more than twice the total number lacking basic health insurance.
  • Poor oral health can complicate diabetes; heart disease; pneumonia; and further study is needed to determine the documented link between gum disease and preterm low birth weight babies.

Having dental insurance can be the difference between simple tooth decay and losing your teeth, or the difference between a toothache and a serious operation. Dental care is preventive care; it saves our hospitals and taxpayers the high cost of treating life-threatening complications and helps poor and middle class people get and keep jobs.