There’s a dental crisis looming in this country, experts warn.
Many people who can’t afford dental insurance are foregoing routine checkups and cleanings, and hesitating to visit the dentist while a problem is small and not yet severe. But even once the problem becomes too severe to ignore any longer, many people choose to visit a hospital emergency room rather than an emergency dentist.
The problem is two-fold. First, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provisions virtually no dental care for adults, regardless of the mounting evidence of the connection between oral health and overall physical health. Any adult seeking dental services beyond simple cleanings or checkups will end up paying for those services out-of-pocket. Under the ACA, parents with children that are in need of dental care may be forced to pay extra if they want to enroll them in a plan.
Which leads to the second problem: dental replacement procedures are expensive. The “all-on-four” technique for dental implants can secure an entire upper or lower set of replacement teeth to a healthy jawbone, and results in faster surgeries and less recovery time than the “all-on-six” and “all-on-eight” procedures. But the total cost is still between $20,000 to $25,000.
Many dentists argue that the cost should be thought of as an investment. If patients spend money to fix their teeth now, they won’t be spending even more money later on when the problems they’ve ignored have magnified and worsened considerably. However, the large upfront cost of such procedures (even with financing, available discounts, and flexible payment options) remains a serious hurdle to many patients.
The fact that these types of procedures are not covered at all in the ACA can lead to some absurd outcomes. Prior to a heart surgery to replace a cardiac valve, a surgeon will carefully examine a patient’s teeth to check for possible gateways for infection. If there are any areas of concern, the heart surgeon will call in an oral surgeon to remove the offending teeth before the surgery will commence.
Under the ACA, the majority of the heart surgery itself will be covered. However, with no provisions for dental care, the patient would be required to pay out-of-pocket for the dental surgery. As a result, the dental component could easily end up costing far more than the actual valve replacement itself.
Healthy teeth and gums lead to better overall physical health. Research has shown this consistently and conclusively. But costs are keeping more and more Americans from getting the dental care they need, which could endanger far more than just their winning smiles — it could endanger their lives.
According to Beth Truett, president and CEO of Oral Health America, “Until we have an expansion of this kind of (i.e., dental) coverage, and until we have people really recognizing what this means for their overall health, I do believe we have an unimaginable tragedy on our hands.”