Sen. Bernie Sanders recognizes that oral health is an integral part of overall health. Yet millions of people today are unable to get the dental care they need. As a result, cavities, which are highly preventable, are the most common chronic disease of childhood and one in four adults age 65 and older has lost all of his or her teeth. Untreated oral health conditions can lead to not only tooth loss, pain and infection, but also contribute to an increased risk for serious medical conditions such as diabetes and poor birth outcomes. Dental problems also result in missed work and school, poor nutrition and a decline in overall well-being. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, Sen. Sanders has introduced comprehensive legislation to address the dental crisis by improving access to oral health care.
About 40 years ago, when Sen. Sanders lived in the tiny town of Standard in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, he saw a young man whose teeth were rotting in his mouth. It was a sight he never forgot.
Lack of access to affordable dental care is not just a problem in Vermont, but it is also a national problem, one too often ignored. Low-income families, minorities, pregnant women, the elderly, those with disabilities and those who live in rural communities often have a much harder time accessing and affording a dental provider than other groups.
While tooth decay is almost entirely preventable, people who do not see a dental provider do not get the early diagnoses, preventive services and early interventions that can halt or slow the progress of most oral diseases. As a result, one quarter of children aged 2-5 and one half of those 12-15 have tooth decay. In Vermont in 2009, 62,000 adults and 10,000 seniors went without dental care because they could not afford it.
As many as 130 million Americans do not have dental insurance coverage. Traditional Medicare does not offer dental benefits, and many veterans do not qualify for benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Dental services are a required benefit for children but an optional benefit for adults who have Medicaid.
More than 47 million people live in designated "dental health shortage areas" where there are too few dentists to meet existing needs. Only 20 percent of the nation's dentists provide care to people with Medicaid, which means that many low income families, seniors and people with disabilities have a difficult time finding a dentist.
One piece of good news: Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) play a critical role in providing cost effective dental care to over 3.5 million Americans including about 25,000 Vermonters, regardless of their ability to pay. Sen. Sanders is committed to expanding health centers and other options for the delivering high quality dental care at an affordable cost.
In February 2012, Sen. Sanders held a hearing on the crisis in oral health care and released a report on the issue.
Then, in June 2012, Sen. Sanders introduced the Comprehensive Dental Reform Act of 2012 (S. 3272) to address some of these problems and bring an end the dental care crisis.
This bill, which is supported by over 40 organizations, extends comprehensive dental health insurance to millions of Americans who do not have coverage today. It creates new access points for those who currently do not have a dentist. In addition, it works to expand the number of dentists and dental professionals by investing in education and workforce development, and by funding research into improving access.
Sen. Sanders has said: "When we talk about the health care crisis in America we often ignore a very important aspect of that crisis: that tens of millions of Americans are unable to access affordable dental care and they suffer as a result of that." He is committed, through this bill and other efforts, to improving access to safe and affordable dental care for all Americans.