We must fix the gaping holes in Medicare

By: Sen. Bernie Sanders & Rep Pramila Jayapal; The Washington Post

More than 55 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare — one of the most popular and successful government programs in our nation’s history — into law. Before the enactment of Medicare, about half of our senior citizens were uninsured and roughly 35 percent lived in poverty. Today, everyone in America aged 65 or older is guaranteed health-care benefits through Medicare regardless of income or medical condition, while the official poverty rate for seniors is now less than 9 percent.

That is the good news. The bad news is that, since its inception in 1965, Medicare has not covered such basic health-care needs as hearing, dental care and vision. The result: Millions of senior citizens have teeth rotting in their mouths, are unable to hear what their children and grandchildren say or can’t read a newspaper because of failing eyesight. It is a cruel irony that older Americans do not have coverage for these benefits at the time when they need it the most.

The lack of benefits for hearing, dental and vision has severe consequences for worsening a whole host of other medical conditions. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Moderate loss tripled risk, and people with a severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia. Aging affects teeth as well, as gum tissue naturally recedes exposing roots to decay and infection. Poor oral health and untreated gum disease leads to increased serious risk of heart attacks, strokesrheumatoid arthritis and worsened diabetes. Aging also takes a toll on vision, leading to injury, cognitive impairment and depression.

And yet, in the richest country in the world, the outrageous reality is that 75 percent of senior citizens who suffer from hearing loss do not have a hearing aid because of the prohibitive cost. Sixty-five percent of senior citizens have no dental insurance and no idea how they will be able to afford to go to a dentist. More than a quarter of senior citizens in this country are missing all of their natural teeth, with many unable to properly digest the food that they eat. Over 70 percent of Americans 65 and older have untreated gum disease. We simply cannot tolerate this any longer.

The original vision of Medicare was to provide quality health-care coverage to our nation’s seniors. Today, it’s past time to fix the gaping holes that are the lack of coverage for dental, vision and hearing, which are so critical, especially as we age. We must do what the overwhelming majority of Americans want us to do: expand Medicare to cover hearing aids, dental care and eyeglasses.