Medicare dental legislation: A popular and wise investment

Medicare dental legislation: A popular and wise investment
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Amidst all of the political noise in recent weeks, the House of Representatives passed a policy that could transform health care for tens of millions of Americans. It may even be something that will please everyone. 

The provision is based on an idea that is wildly popular with voters of all political stripes and backgrounds: adding oral health coverage to Medicare. H.R.3 would cover screening and preventive services, basic and primary treatments, and dentures. 

The House vote comes more than half a century after Congress created the federal health-care program for senior citizens and disabled Americans. Getting such a bill enacted would be life-changing for the estimated 37 million people on Medicare who can’t afford to get regular dental care.

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When the legislation passed his committee this fall, Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) called it “one of the biggest positive changes to Medicare in a generation.” Voters across the political spectrum seem to agree.

In a time where divisions between political parties and differences across generations almost always define public discourse, the strong support for adding oral health coverage to Medicare is striking. In an August poll from Families USA/YouGov, 7 out of 10 likely voters said they favor adding dental benefits to Medicare. 

While voters who identified themselves as liberal were most likely to be in favor of adding dental, we still see a significant majority of moderates (75 percent) and conservatives (56 percent) backing the idea.

The most reliable support for dental benefits by age group may come from voters over age 65 (74 percent). Still, the numbers were fairly consistent among all age groups, including 66 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds. Support is reliable across all voter demographic groups, including race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and ideology.

The ardent demand for dental coverage shouldn’t be surprising. Dental care is essential to our overall health, our quality of life, and vital nourishment. People deal with those consequences every day.

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Yet, Medicare excludes coverage for almost all dental services. It also does not require its Medicare Advantage managed care plans to offer dental insurance—although some do to attract enrollees. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, that leaves an estimated 37 million people who rely on Medicare for their health care without any oral health coverage. As a result, many of these seniors and people with disabilities cannot afford to get dental care that is essential to their well being.

Going without regular dental care can contribute to health complications or allow serious illnesses to go undiagnosed. The first signs of diabetes and other chronic diseases can show up in a dental checkup.

Research has linked gum disease to many serious health problems — including diabetes, heart disease, and stroke — and shows that dental treatment can help alleviate those problems. In some of these cases, providing dental care can even reduce overall health-care costs. 

If our political leaders genuinely want to improve health and health care in the United States, comprehensive dental coverage to Medicare is a responsible investment. The House of Representatives has made this realization, and their recent legislation is a significant step toward improving our nation’s health

Still, some politicians have yet to come around. The Senate has made no indication that they intend to move forward with oral health legislation, and few policymakers include oral health among their health-care priorities. That must change. 

This is a nonpartisan issue with broad support from Americans of all ages and viewpoints. It ought to be an easy call for any policymaker or candidate who wants a better health system.

Ifetayo Johnson is the executive director of the Oral Health Progress and Equity Network (OPEN) Inc. OPEN brings change agents together to make sure that every person has the keys to access good oral health.

Shawn Gremminger is the senior director of federal relations at Families USA. Families USA is a leading national voice for health care consumers dedicated to the achievement of high-quality, affordable health care and improved health for all.