Dental News

Adding dental benefits to Medicare.

March 16, 2017

It’s not uncommon for senior citizens to neglect dental treatment. In fact, federal researchers report that approximately 19 percent of adults aged 65 and older have untreated tooth decay. One of the main reasons for this trend: cost, and the inability of many seniors to afford treatment.

A recent article published by USA Today sheds light on this gap in dental treatment of seniors. The story follows Carolyn Thompson, an 81-year-old retired nurse in need of dentures. She’s missing bottom teeth but Medicare won’t cover dentures, and she can’t afford to pay for them herself. She hasn’t seen the dentist in years, even though there is one at her retirement community.

Many senior citizens face the same problem, and the percentage of untreated dental patients in this cohort is growing. Unfortunately for them, Medicare rarely covers dental treatment, and only 12% of Americans over 65 have dental insurance. The American Dental Association has an explanation for why dental coverage wasn’t a priority when Medicare was created in the 1960s: at the time, nearly half of Americans between 65 and 74 years of age had lost their natural teeth. There simply wasn’t as much of a need for dental care among seniors. Today, 87% of Americans in that age group still have some of their teeth, and life expectancy has increased, meaning that they will need care for a longer period.

With extensive research linking overall health to oral health, it’s clear that seniors who go without dental care are putting their overall health at risk. For example, untreated tooth decay is linked to more serious complications such as heart disease, which is much more expensive to treat.

One group (backed in part by dental industry firms) is advocating for dental coverage under Medicare to help close the treatment gap. The Santa Fe Group is working to build public demand for Medicare dental benefits and lobbying Congress to enact change. Broader coverage wouldn’t be cheap, though: a Johns Hopkins study projected that a dental benefit under Medicaid could cost anywhere between $4.4 billion to $16.2 billion a year. At a time when government-subsidized health benefits are on the chopping block, the groups faces an uphill political battle.

If they are successful, the implications for dentists and senior patients could be profound.