09:09 AM

Prioritizing Our Seniors: Why Offering Medicare Dental Coverage Matters

More than 46 million seniors lack dental coverage, according to a 2015 report on enrollment from the National Association of Dental Plans (NADP) and Delta Dental Plans Association (DDPA). And that number is only expected to rise with our burgeoning population of older adults.

In order to help more seniors get covered, U.S. federal policy must more effectively address the oral health needs of this population.

Recently, there have been several big news storiesabout the barriers 70 percent of seniors face to receive quality oral health care.

One major contributor is that dental care is not covered under Medicare. Boston College researchers found that the percentage of people with dental coverage declines by more than half in the 10 years after reaching retirement age -- from 62 percent at age 65 to 26 percent at 75. Why? According to CBS News, the study suggests the following...

The reason: When most workers retire, they lose the dental coverage provided by their employer or union. But doesn’t Medicare, which starts at age 65, step in and pick up the slack? Not on your canines, “a fact that a majority of baby boomers are unaware of…”

According to a recent survey of 2,000 registered U.S. voters conducted by DentaQuest via Morning Consult, this is not a partisan issue. In fact, 83 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats responded that dental coverage should be included in Medicare.

Without coverage, seniors face significant out-of-pocket costs to obtain appropriate oral health care, as they are more likely to need the most costly procedures, such as crowns, implants, or false teeth as they age. Seniors are also more likely to have chronic conditions that may complicate or exacerbate these oral health issues.

Because traditional Medicare does not provide dental coverage, Medicare Advantage plans are taking a lead in providing oral health coverage for seniors. In fact, DentaQuest partners with many of these plans because they recognize the importance of oral health to the overall health of older adults. However, these benefits are optional or supplemental and not all seniors can afford to pay out of pocket for this coverage.

More affordable solutions are necessary to bridge this gap for our seniors.

With all of the discussion surrounding changes to the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, policies to expand dental coverage have largely gone overlooked. However, DentaQuest has taken steps to begin addressing this gap.

A few weeks ago, the DentaQuest Foundation announceda $668,000 grant to Oral Health America to expand the Wisdom Tooth Project and increase advocacy for publicly funded dental coverage for seniors. This project focuses on five strategies including education for seniors and professionals and pilot demonstration projects to combat barriers to care. The DentaQuest Foundation has been pivotal in supporting Oral Health America’s efforts for older adult oral health since 2010.

As health care prepares to undergo substantial changes, industry stakeholders may support different proposals but our goal should remain the same. We echo AHIP’s comments that the industry must bond together “to ensure every American has access to affordable coverage and quality care so they can achieve their best health.”

Expanding access to health care, including oral health care, is a foundational pillar to achieve this goal.

We cannot leave our seniors behind.