Everyone Deserves Dental Care

It is long past time to guarantee dental care as a right for every American. There’s only one candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary who’s fighting for dental care to be included in a robust Medicare for All plan: Bernie Sanders.

Patients receive dental assistance at a Remote Area Medical Clinic (RAM) on February 01, 2019 in Knoxville, Tennessee. RAM provides free medical care through mobile clinics in underserved, isolated, or impoverished communities around the country and world. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Dental care is badly overlooked in today’s health insurance plans and in the political discussion around health-care reform. Medicare does not cover it, Medicaid’s dental coverage differs from state to state, and an estimated 74 million people in the United States have no dental benefits.

The lack of concern for dental coverage in the United States is very disturbing. That’s why I strongly support Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-All bill, which would cover routine and necessary dental care for everyone in America, free at the point of use.

I have worked as a dental hygienist in Alaska for thirty years. In that time, I’ve also volunteered in schools screening students for dental care, educated middle-school students about the effects of tobacco use on oral health, and volunteered at free clinics providing emergency dental care to patients who can’t afford the treatment they need.

In my workplace, we encounter many people who have no dental insurance benefits. They do not go to the dentist until they are in severe pain. When I see a person with a mouthful of cavities or gum disease, my heart sinks. I know the patient is hurting and fearful of receiving treatment. Knowing that this situation could be prevented with simple, regular dental visits is infuriating.

Oral health is about more than having pretty teeth — it’s a gateway to overall health. An annual cleaning and exam is important for monitoring dental issues like cavities, gum disease, oral cancer, and lesions. A dental exam can also identify signs and symptoms of systemic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and thyroid disease. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, advanced gum disease can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, while also having an adverse impact on chronic kidney disease, pregnancy outcomes, and diabetes.

In 2017, the National Association of Dental Plans studied the difference in treatment and health between families with and without dental benefits. They found that families in the United States with dental benefits are “more likely to go to the dentist, take their children to the dentist, receive restorative care and experience greater overall health.”

People without dental insurance, meanwhile, are more likely to have extractions instead of restorative care or treatment for gum disease. They are also 67 percent more likely to have heart disease, 50 percent more likely to have osteoporosis, and 29 percent more likely to have diabetes.

An estimated 2 million visits a year to emergency rooms are for emergency dental treatments. Proper preventive care would eliminate these costly emergencies, while early detection of systemic diseases would lower overall health-care costs.

Given the increasing awareness of the connection between oral health and overall health, it is time to finally guarantee dental care as a right for every American.

Sanders’s Medicare-for-All bill will accomplish this by improving Medicare’s coverage to include dental care (as well as vision, hearing, and mental health), and by expanding the program to cover every US resident. It will get rid of all co-pays, premiums, and deductibles, guaranteeing that anyone can receive the care they need — dental or otherwise — with no financial barriers.

We already have examples of free-at-the-point-of-use dental care in this country. The Alaska Native Medical Center — a free health service for all Alaska Native tribal members — has recognized the need for preventive dental care in their community and operates a number of dental clinics with no out-of-pocket costs. This is changing their future generation’s dental heath outlook, saving people from unnecessary suffering and pain. Other institutions that cover dental care include Veterans Affairs (the VA), Medicaid in some states, and the military. It’s time to learn from this approach and expand dental coverage to all Americans through a Medicare-for-All, single-payer system.

Over the years, I have seen the pain, embarrassment, and unnecessary fear of treatment dental patients have. Bringing up an entire generation of children with regular dental care is a necessity in this country. Annual preventive care, education of good oral hygiene practices, and screenings for oral diseases and systemic disorders would change millions of lives for the better. This basic coverage will prevent suffering and pain, reduce instances of heart disease and other serious illnesses, and save our health-care system money overall.

Bernie Sanders had the insight to include dental care in his Medicare-for-All bill. This proves to me that he has a complete understanding of what health care should look like in this country. Dental professionals should recognize the massive positive impact federally funded dental care will have on patients and throw their full support behind Medicare for All and the sole candidate who’s truly pushing for it.