‘A crisis issue:’ Lawmakers tackle lack of access to affordable dental care

Taking care of our smile is essential to our overall health. But for millions of Americans, that care is out of reach because of cost.

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Access to that care was the focus of a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill.

“This is an issue we do not discuss enough. It is a crisis issue,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee.

Sanders said 91 million Americans don’t have dental insurance and said about half of Americans with dental insurance skip getting care because they can’t afford out-of-pocket costs.

He said one of out of five seniors in the U.S. are missing all their natural teeth and more than 40 percent of children have tooth decay by the time they reach kindergarten.

The panel also pointed to critical workforce shortages of dentists, dental hygienists and dental therapists.

“Promoting a sufficient dental care workforce that serves patients where they live, including in rural and underserved areas is so important,” said Ranking Member Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana.

Our Washington News Bureau spoke with Dr. Ashley Popejoy, clinical director of Oral Health at the Jordan Community Health Center in Springfield, Missouri.

“Dental care is healthcare,” said Dr. Popejoy. “Barriers that patients are experiencing, number one of course just like everything else right now is the cost of care.”

Popejoy said neglecting dental care can lead to other potential health problems.

“The deferral of dental care can result in systemic issues,” she said. “Those issues could include infections. . . . It could include pain and swelling that can cause loss of time at work or school.”

The Senate committee heard testimony about real-world examples of these dangers.

“I have cared for patients in the intensive care unit with life-threatening sepsis from a dental infection,” said Dr. Lisa Simon of Harvard Medical School. “I have met patients who cannot start chemotherapy because they can’t afford to remove their infected teeth.”

Dentists have said prevention is generally much more affordable than waiting to take care of dental issues.

“Taking care of those issues when they’re small is much less expensive than waiting,” said Dr. Popejoy. “The first step is making a dental appointment just for a checkup. You may find that what you need is not as costly as you think it may be. . . . The second part of that is being sure what your insurance is if you have it.”

There are proposals under consideration in Congress aimed at addressing the dental care crisis and the shortages of dentists in many communities.

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