Calls growing to add dental benefit to Medicare Part B

Photo: Moodboard via Flickr

Photo: Moodboard via Flickr

A quarter of a million Americans are retiring each month. Many are surprised to learn that Medicare does not include coverage for routine dental care. But could the nation’s health insurance program offer dental benefits? Should it?

There are important reasons to consider the idea, says Beth Truett, president and CEO of the nonprofit Oral Health America.

“More people are living longer. More people are keeping their teeth,” said Truett, who was featured in a recent AHCJ webcast. “Oral health is part of overall health.”

Enrollment in Medicare, which now covers more than 50 million Americans,  is projected to grow to 72 million by 2030, Truett noted. She and a coalition of advocates from organizations including the DentaQuest Foundation and the Santa Fe Group are mounting a push to add a dental benefit to Part B of Medicare.

They do not yet have a price tag for their initiative, which likely will be met with skepticism in the wake of the presidential election. Republicans controlling both houses in the new congressional session appear more emboldened than ever to scale back federal programs rather than expand them.

Beth Truett

Beth Truett

In comments during and after the webcast, Truett said she and other advocates plan to continue to raise awareness about the dental needs of seniors and make a case for adding dental benefits to Medicare.

“It’s never the wrong time to build the right coalition,” she said, noting that the oral health needs of older Americans are important by themselves, but they should not be seen in a vacuum. Seniors play an important role in families and communities.

A case in point is the fact that one in 10 U.S children are living full time with their grandparents. In these multi-generational “grandfamilies,” the oral health needs of the young and the old often intersect, according to a new Oral Health America survey.

The survey’s study’s findings offer a glimpse into the health challenges and benefits experienced by these families, Truett said. And, as she noted, “it is a story that hasn’t been told.”

“There are still diverse ideas about what should be included in a benefit and how the savings would be estimated,” Truett said. But she and others cite insurance company studies that suggest providing timely care for oral problems such as periodontal (gum) disease could significantly reduce costs for the management of widespread systemic diseases such diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“All the models under consideration – none of which are ready for the legislative process – indicate significant cost savings on overall related conditions,” Truett said.

Beyond dollars and cents, the relationships between periodontal disease and systemic diseases are complex. More research is needed to better understand the impact of oral treatments on disease beyond the mouth, many experts agree.

A new AHCJ tip sheet can help get journalists started on reporting about these issues in their community.

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