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Oral Health Care Supporters Advocate for Improved Dental Coverage

More than 300 oral health care advocates traveled to Capitol Hill on October 24 to help advance legislation that would ensure additional, much-needed dental coverage for Americans.

More than 300 oral health care advocates traveled to Capitol Hill on October 24 to help advance legislation that would ensure additional, much-needed dental coverage for Americans.

Representatives from oral health coalitions, programs, and organizations from all 50 states met with decision makers to help advance a handful of bills that support adding dental coverage to Medicare benefits. HR 4650, which will add dental benefits to Medicare Part B as a national standard, is one of the bills being considered in session.

Adoption of HR 4650 would provide Medicare beneficiaries coverage for preventive and screening services, basic treatments (e.g., restorations, extractions, and oral disease management), and major dental services (e.g., bridges, crowns, root canals, and dental implants). Under the bill introduced by Rep. Robin L. Kelly (D-Ill.), dental benefits would be incrementally built into the program, beginning with preventive services, then basic restorative care, and more complex restorative benefits in years to come.

Most Medicare beneficiaries do not currently have dental care benefits, whereas adult Medicaid dental coverage varies on a state-by-state basis.

“We scheduled visits with legislators to elevate oral health on a federal level,” says Helen Hawkey, RDH, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Oral Health. OPEN, the Oral Health Progress and Equity Network, conducted more than 160 visits during the trip to Washington to discuss specific bills that aim to provide American with dental benefits.

Oral health professionals advocated for measures that will provide comprehensive dental care for pregnant women, children, and older adults. Expanding dental services for an aging population is vital to the latter group, as millions of seniors lose their private carrier dental coverage once they reach age 65. “More of these patients are keeping their teeth, so it is important to control dental disease in this population,” Hawkey explains. A study published in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association reports complete tooth loss decreased by 75% for adults 65 to 74 years of age over the past five decades.

Providing comprehensive dental care for pregnant women is another key objective to keep mother and baby healthy. “The extension of Medicaid coverage for pregnant women’s oral health is extremely important in decreasing the incidence of preterm birth, low birth weight, and improving the overall health for pregnant women. So we wanted to make sure Congress is considering the Mommies Act that includes postpartum dental coverage up to a year,” says Hawkey.

Pregnant women should be reminded that receiving dental care during pregnancy is crucial to ensuring both oral and overall health, as poor maternal oral health is linked to increased risk of pregnancy complications.

Health care providers and public health advocacy groups have long supported integrating dental services into comprehensive health care. Oral health is also top of mind for many Americans, according to a new study. Of the 1,500 US adults surveyed, 51% said they are concerned about their oral health—making it the top health concern in the survey. The study, Reversible Decay: Oral Health is a Public Health Problem We Can Solve, commissioned by DentaQuest, also found Americans believe Medicare (80%) and Medicaid (78%) should cover dental care.

Oral health professionals and public health advocates can support passage of these bills by writing letters to their congressional members. Clinicians should reach out to their local oral health coalitions to learn how to most effectively contact elected officials.

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