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Dental Care Access for the Elderly: A Gaping Shortfall

Medicare and Dental Coverage
KFF
July 28, 2021
By Meredith Freed et al

Key Findings:

  • Nearly half of Medicare beneficiaries (47%), or 24 million people, do not have dental coverage, as of 2019.
  •  Almost half of all Medicare beneficiaries did not have a dental visit within the past year (47%), with higher rates among those who are Black (68%) or Hispanic (61%), have low incomes (73%), or who are in fair or poor health (63%), as of 2018.
  • Average out-of-pocket spending on dental services among Medicare beneficiaries who had any dental service was $874 in 2018. One in five Medicare beneficiaries (20%) who used dental services spent more than $1,000 out-of-pocket on dental care.

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Comment by Isabel Ostrer

The Medicare website explicitly reads, “Medicare doesn’t cover most dental care, dental procedures, or supplies, like cleanings, fillings, tooth extractions, dentures, dental plates, or other dental devices,” so it’s no wonder that a recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that 24 million Medicare beneficiaries lacked dental coverage in 2019. These disparities in access to dental care are even greater for non-white and low-income Medicare beneficiaries.

As Dr. Sanjeev Sriram said during a rally on July 30th marking the 56th anniversary of the Medicare program, “Your eyes, your ears, and your teeth are connected to your body… These things are not luxury items. Your teeth are not luxury items.” Why, then, in the richest country in the world, do we separate dental care from health care?

The simple answer boils down to an historical anomaly: dentistry has its roots in the barber profession – until the 1800s barbers routinely pulled painful teeth after they finished trimming a patron’s hair – and was consequently shunned by the medical profession. When the first medical schools were created dentistry was not recognized. Subsequently, when Medicare was enacted in 1965 dental services were not covered.

This history ignores that oral health is intimately tied to overall health and well-being. Dental pain is a leading reason for emergency department visits. Poor oral health is associated with numerous medical conditions, including cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

As Congress works towards passing a trillion dollar infrastructure bill that includes Medicare reform, adding vision, hearing, and dental benefits should be a top priority. But while we’re at it, we should push for sweeping health reform. Medicare for All would ensure that all Americans – not just seniors – have access to comprehensive benefits including dental coverage.

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