14:13 PM

ACA Enrollment Period Opens Door on Dental Care, Too

By Steve Pollock, DentaQuest president and CEO

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to feel the effects of this public health emergency on our society. We recently marked the tragic — and at one time unthinkable — milestone of 500,000 deaths due to COVID in the United States. Although the number of infections and hospitalizations are trending in the right direction in the U.S., the virus remains a serious threat to the country.

That’s why the federal government’s decision to reopen the health insurance marketplace for three months is such an important lifeline for millions of Americans. With HealthCare.gov open until May 15, people in 36 states will have the ability to shop for affordable coverage at a time when access to health care is more important than ever.

It provides a critical opportunity to secure high-quality, affordable dental coverage, too.

The Connection Between the Mouth and the Body

During this pandemic, we’ve seen just how critical oral health is to a person’s overall health. A stark example of this comes from a recent report that looked at health outcomes for patients who required breathing assistance from a mechanical ventilator, a common intervention used to treat those hospitalized with COVID-19.

According to the report, having at least one preventive dental visit within three years of being placed on a mechanical ventilator reduced a patient’s likelihood of a ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) diagnosis by 22%. VAP is a leading cause of death among critically ill patients and has posed a serious problem for those afflicted with COVID-19 who require mechanical ventilation. The report also found that among patients on mechanical ventilators for 48 hours or longer, Black people were 39% more likely than white people to be diagnosed with VAP.

While this study provides one concrete example of the connection between oral health and a person’s overall health, it adds to what has been known for a long time: A healthy mouth is critical to a healthy life. Poor oral health can worsen overall health by raising the risk for diabetes complications, stroke and other serious conditions. The millions of Americans without access to necessary preventive oral health care — many because they lack dental insurance — are at increased risk of poor health outcomes due to unidentified and untreated dental disease.

Individuals without dental insurance are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis. They are more likely to visit emergency departments for dental care, where dental services cost more for both the individual and the health system. And the costs of chronic diseases linked to oral health care are staggering.

In announcing the reopening of the marketplace, the federal government noted that more than 30 million Americans don’t have health insurance. It’s an alarming statistic, but it pales in comparison to the number of individuals lacking dental insurance, which one study done before the pandemic estimates to be 67 million people, or nearly a quarter of the country’s population.

And it’s unacceptable.

The Obstacles Facing Communities of Color

In his Executive Order reopening the marketplace, President Biden recognized that people of color, who have suffered disproportionately during this pandemic, are more likely to be uninsured in America. The same is true with respect to dental insurance, and the downstream effects are troubling.

That data from previous research indicates:

  • Black adults are 68% more likely than white adults to have an unmet dental need.
  • Latino adults are 52% more likely than white adults to report having difficulty performing at work due to poor oral health.
  • Overall, Americans in poverty are 2.5 times more likely to have an unmet dental need due to lack of insurance.

The reality is that good oral health must not be perceived as a luxury or a perk — it is an essential component of our overall health. Reopening the ACA marketplace until May 15 is a positive step toward providing dental coverage to more Americans, but it is just one step. Moving forward, we must continue our work of tearing down the arbitrary silos between oral health and overall health and finding innovative ways to increase access for all.

But until then, if you do not have dental coverage, protect yourself and your family by visiting HealthCare.gov and choosing an available dental plan. Coverage is more affordable than you may think.