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Connecting Americans With Much-Needed Dental Care | Commentary

By Steve Pollock Several months ago, there was an error in the highly anticipated Affordable Care Act enrollment numbers when hundreds of thousands of dental plan enrollments were erroneously included in the goal of covering 7 million Americans under the new health law. While this miscommunication was handled swiftly and effectively by the administration, it served as a distraction from the very real progress that has been made in providing dental coverage to more individuals.  

One of the major successes of the ACA is the 1 million people who now have dental coverage through the public health exchanges, many of them for the first time. However, while this expanded coverage is certainly good news, statistics tell us that more progress needs to be made in terms of expanding affordable dental coverage and realizing the cost savings associated with preventative care.  

Access to dental care has historically been a significant unmet health need in the United States, so much so that former Surgeon General David Satcher referred to the state of oral health in America as a silent epidemic. Dental disease remains the number one chronic illness among children, surpassing even asthma. Believe it or not, 60 percent of children (from ages 6 to 8) already have tooth decay, which will impact their oral health for the rest of their lives. And, as a country, we spend as much on the treatment of dental disease — almost all of it preventable — as we do on the treatment of all cancers combined.  

Clearly, better access to regular preventative dental services is critical to controlling costs. Not only does preventative care address dental problems before they become expensive visits to the emergency room, but poor dental health has also been conclusively linked to costly chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.  

Recognizing the successes of the ACA, we urge Congress to work with key members in the health care community to develop thoughtful improvements to the law. Presently, the ACA classifies dental care for children as an “essential benefit,” often making access to coverage for adults elusive, or worse, unattainable. Instilling the benefits of regular cleanings, treatments and checkups in children is laudable, but having access to benefits abruptly end in adulthood can lead to long-term, chronic and costly health issues.  

Additionally, was designed in such a way that an individual or family cannot access dental coverage unless they first purchase a medical plan through an exchange. By prohibiting “a la carte” purchasing of affordable dental coverage through the health exchange, a large segment of our population who would otherwise buy dental coverage through the exchange are forced to go without. People should be incentivized to improve their oral health through accessible and affordable coverage, and barriers to that coverage should be removed. Leaders from both sides of the aisle should work with the Department of Health and Human Services to update to permit this commonsense solution.  

Imagine a health care system where dental benefits are accessible to individuals and families, irrespective of age or income level. Advocates of health care reform rightly point to the progress that has been made in extending coverage, but without a serious dialogue on how to strategically address the dental health epidemic, a key component of preventative care and long-term cost control is noticeably absent. The ACA is a good model of how affordable dental coverage options can be offered directly to more consumers. Now the challenge lies in using the existing exchanges setup to expand those options to presently-underserved populations, which falls to our leaders in Congress.  

When the accounting snafu at the Department of Health and Human Services was pointed out, Secretary Burwell did the right thing. She conceded the error and vowed to further bolster the culture of transparency surrounding the implementation of the new health care law. In the interest of sound public policy, we urge Congress to apply the same diligence to finding pragmatic ways to expand dental coverage under the ACA.  

Steve Pollock is the Chief Operating Officer of DentaQuest.

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