Dental Crisis in America

WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 – A Senate panel heard today that millions of Americans do not have access to dentists because of skyrocketing costs, inadequate insurance and government policies that don’t pay to prevent problems that left untreated get worse and cost more for taxpayer-funded emergency care.

“We can and must address the dental crisis in America now,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said at the outset of the hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging.

Spending for dental care is rapidly climbing, according to a new report prepared by the Government Accountability Office for the subcommittee which Sanders chairs. Americans spent about $108 billion on dentists in 2011.

But the soaring costs coupled with inadequate insurance coverage put dental care beyond the budgets of many working families. More than four out of 10 American adults skipped trips to the dentist because they lacked insurance and could not afford out-of-pocket payments, according to the GAO, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress.

Sanders plans to introduce legislation to expand comprehensive dental coverage to millions of Americans through Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act and the Department of Veterans Affairs.  His measure also would increase access to dental services at community health centers and boost support for mobile clinics and dental clinics in schools.

Taxpayers would save money by boosting resources for preventive care, Sanders said. “When people cannot get to a dentist when they need one, they often end up in emergency rooms. It just doesn’t make sense for us to spend so much money on those who wind up in hospitals but refuse to help people get the care they need before it’s too late,” Sanders said. 

Witnesses at today’s hearing included Cathi Stallings, a social worker from Falls Church, Va. “I am here as someone who knows firsthand that dental care is a luxury that many millions of us in America cannot afford,” she said. 

Dr. Debony Hughes, a former Vermont dentist who now works in Prince Georges County, Md., told the panel about her recent experience volunteering at a free clinic. “I was overwhelmed. People slept overnight in hopes to receive care,” she testified. “But patients should not have to endure those types of conditions to receive treatment,” she added. “These experiences reminded me that quality dental care is not a luxury, it is a necessity and we need to make it accessible and affordable for adults to receive the care they need and deserve.”

To read the GAO report, click here.