I know of too many struggling seniors whose dental care plans have been reduced to: “I guess I’ll have to chew on the other side for a while.”
We are shocked to hear 36 million Americans live without health insurance. But how many of us know that three times that number lack dental insurance?
Elected officials — even those who apparently had some wisdom extracted along with their wisdom teeth — know for a fact that the most rudimentary preventive dental care is linked with fewer hospital admissions, substantially lower medical costs and improved overall health.
So why then have insurance companies and policy makers put an Alfred E. Neuman teeth-sized gap between dental and medical care?
And why is it like — well, pulling teeth — to try and get our elected officials to provide better and more affordable dental benefits to our low-income elderly on Medicare? Right now, Medicare provides only very limited coverage defined as hospital-based and emergency oral health services.
Yes, the Affordable Care Act designates preventive dental care a required benefit for health insurance plans, but only for children.
California ranks 30th among all the states in how effectively it addresses dental care for older adults. Some areas of the state offer Denti-Cal, a jerry (not Jerry Brown)-rigged dental coverage option. Only one in four California dental providers provide services to Denti-Cal enrollees.
By 2030, California’s 65+ population will grow from 3.6 million to nearly nine million. These older adults, an increasing number who will not have significant pensions or benefits, are going to age into fixed-income poverty and will rely on federal subsidies and public programs like Denti-Cal to meet their oral health needs.
So assuming whichever presidential candidate comes out on top decides to become our 21st Century tooth fairy, here are some suggestions for what they could do with their magic wand.
First, any kind of adjustment or expansion to Medicare (including lowering age eligibility to 55) should include mandatory coverage for the 15 most common preventative treatment and oral treatment services.
Dental schools should be incentivized to recruit more future dentists to focus on the specific challenges of treating the elderly’s dental care needs.
Dental provider reimbursement rates should be increased to a realistic level in Denti-Cal program. This has been proven to increase the quantity and quality of oral health providers to low-income populations.
Locate both senior dental and health services on the same site, thus addressing time and transportation obstacles.
Meanwhile, the national nonprofit Justice in Aging nonprofit group has launched an advocacy/awareness project to fight tooth and nail to improve the oral health of older adults here in California.
In April 2016, the Older Americans Act reauthorized the states and area agencies on aging to direct their funding toward conducting oral health screenings. Our elected officials should be all over reprioritizing funding to take on these and other new allowable oral health activities for our senior loved ones.
Finally, please do not blame your friendly local dentists for all this — they have fillings too.
Until next time…keep thinking the good thoughts.
— For more than 30 years, Rona Barrett was a pioneering entertainment reporter, commentator and producer. Since 2000, she has focused her attention and career on the growing crisis of housing and support for our aging population. She is the founder and CEO of the Rona Barrett Foundation, the catalyst behind Santa Ynez Valley’s first affordable senior housing, the Golden Inn & Village. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are her own.