You may be surprised to learn that many Americans have limited access to dental care. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s ranking of “dental care health professional shortage areas,” in 8 states, under 30% of dental health needs are met: in Georgia, Alabama, South Dakota, Tennessee, New Hampshire, Missouri, Florida, the District of Columbia, and Connecticut.
In these states (and in D.C.), access to dental care falls short. In some areas, particularly rural areas, there simply aren’t enough dentists to meet demand. In other areas, patients can’t afford dental care, and they don’t have the insurance to pay for it. Even when Medicaid includes dental coverage, many dentists won’t accept Medicaid patients because reimbursement rates are very low, and they can’t perform the services on their own dime.
NPR’s Morning Edition recently followed a woman from Wisconsin who was suffering from extreme tooth decay, to the point where she would eat only soft foods because solids caused her too much pain. Then she heard about a medical clinic for the poor run by the Marshfield Clinic, a major medical center in central Wisconsin. They pulled her rotting teeth, fitted her with dentures, and dramatically improved her quality of life. The woman’s age: 31 years old.
Marshfield’s community health centers can offer dental care to underserved populations thanks to a law that allows them to receive full reimbursement for treatment of Medicaid patients as long as they’re also treating patients who have no insurance.
But there’s still a gap in many parts of the county. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, a quarter of Americans went without necessary dental care in 2014 because they couldn’t afford it. Given the importance of good oral health and its direct impact on overall health, that’s a sobering statistic.