MONTPELIER, Vt., March 10 - U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) focused attention on the crisis in dental care in the United States during a town meeting today at Montpelier High School attended by more than 200 people.
"As a nation, we don't talk about it much, but there is a dental crisis in America," said Sanders, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. "This is an issue of huge consequence, but it doesn't get the type of attention deserves."
The senator, who presided at a late February hearing in Washington, D.C., on the dental crisis, announced today he plans to introduce legislation to make dental care more affordable and accessible.
In preparation for the hearing and today's town meeting, Sanders asked people from Vermont and across the country to share their experiences. More than 1,300 people wrote to the senator, including nearly 400 Vermonters. He began the town meeting by playing recordings of Vermonters who sent him their stories.
Laura Austan, 53, of Brattleboro, was one of them. "Between the uncovered medical expenses, and the lack of dentists in my area, I haven't regularly seen a dentist in 13 years, almost 14 at this point," she said. "I now have a missing filling, a broken tooth, a cracked tooth, and gingivitis. And I'm sure at some point I'll be losing most of my teeth. We have very few dentists in this area, and very few that will take Medicare. We need better affordable dental care in Vermont, desperately."
Dr. Jeff Berkowitz, the Vermont State Dental Society president, spoke at the outset of the meeting. "We agree that barriers of dental care continue to plague Vermonters," said Berkowitz, whose association represents more than 350 dentists. "We can do better than this in Vermont."
According to a report distributed at the meeting, 47 million people live in places where it is difficult to access dental care. More than 130 million Americans do not have dental insurance. One quarter of U.S. adults ages 65 or older have lost all of their teeth. About 17 million low-income children do not see a dentist each year. Only 45 percent of Americans age 2 and older saw a dental provider in the past 12 months. Although most oral health conditions are preventable, 60 percent of kids age 5 to 17 have cavities. Tooth decay, the report said, is five times more common among children than asthma.
In Vermont, Sanders said, there has been progress. There now are dental facilities serving 25,000 patients at community health centers in eight of the state's 14 counties. "We are working on two more," Sanders said. Vermont now ranks first in the nation in access to dental care for children, but more than 40 percent of the children still don't have a regular dentist.
In addition to expanding dental access at federally qualified community health centers, an effective way to address the problem is by embedding hygienists in schools. "Putting dental clinics in schools is a real opportunity to address some the serious problems we have been talking about," Sanders said.
While oral health problems can affect anyone, low-income people, racial or ethnic minorities, pregnant women, older adults, and people who live in rural areas have the hardest time getting to see a dental provider.
Unless the situation is addressed it is likely to get worse. At a time when there are nearly 10,000 too few dental providers in the United States, dental schools are graduating fewer new dentists than the number who retire each year.
Kiah Morris of Bennington also shared her story at the town meeting. "Today, I greet you with a smile that is missing three teeth," she said. "Dental care should not have to be a luxury."
"There is no question in my mind that thousands of people need dental care in this state and they are not getting it," Sanders said. "This is a solvable problem."
To listen to the recordings of Vermonters who shared their experiences, click here.