50 Years of Medicaid, Yet Oral Health Gaps Remain
By Steve Pollock, President and Chief Executive Officer
In 1965, Medicaid and Medicare were signed into law. At that time, there were more than 194 million people in the United States. Thirty-two million lived in poverty. America’s low-income population was in desperate need of medical coverage and the financial means to access care.
Enacting Medicaid and Medicare was the first step toward helping this largely underserved population. With the intended purpose of providing a public health insurance program for low-income people, Medicaid has made great strides in increasing access to coverage since its inception.
Medicaid Covers More People, Just Not for Dental
From the original 4 million Americans that enrolled in Medicaid to the 65 million who are enrolled today, the goal has remained the same: administer proper medical care to those with limited or scarce resources.
Policy and lawmakers alike have recognized the importance of creating an opportunity for all Americans, socioeconomic status aside, to be protected with quality medical care.
As background, Medicaid provides health coverage to non-elderly low-income parents, their children, other caretaker relatives, pregnant women, and other non-disabled adults. Most recently, Medicaid expanded to include more people under those definitions based on language in the Affordable Care Act.
While Medicaid’s accomplishments to date are something to be deeply proud of, the reality is that there is a major gap that still needs attending to: adult dental coverage.
Medicaid Members Need Dental Coverage
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post on Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) funding being successfully extended for two more years. In that post, I pointed out the decision to include adult dental care coverage within Medicaid is up to each state to decide. As a result of that policy, millions of Americans are left without access to dental benefits. This still holds true, even though oral health is vital to overall health and lower health costs.
In the past decade alone, patients seeking treatment for dental pain in the ER doubled from 1.1 million to 2.1 million. And 80 percent of dental-related ER visits are caused by preventable conditions. This reality means our focus needs to be on providing preventive care that will ultimately cost three times less than ER visits, and save a lot of people from excruciating dental pain.
CHIP is a great example of how mandated dental coverage works. CHIP has been a critical source of health coverage for children and pregnant women who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to purchase private health insurance. It provides affordable medical and dental coverage to more than 8 million children across the country.
Coverage Leads to Improved Prevention
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 80 percent of CHIP enrollees saw a dentist in the past year, a number much higher in comparison to children who do not have coverage. That preventive care will ultimately save kids from future dental emergency visits, keep kids in school instead of at excessive dental appointments, and ensure more kids are pain-free and smiling.
Moving forward, I urge legislators to rise to the challenge: let’s continue increasing access for those in need and secure adult dental coverage under Medicaid at the federal level.
Oral health is crucial to overall health and wellness, and should be recognized as so by the law. Mandating adult dental coverage is the necessary next step towards achieving improved oral health for all.