One out of three adults covered by Medicare aren’t getting regular dental care, according to a survey by the Senior Citizens League (TSCL).
“We estimate that roughly 20 million older Americans are going without biannual cleanings, x-rays, and dental exams,” said Mary Johnson, a Social Security and Medicare policy analyst for TSCL.
Medicare does not cover routine dental health services, which often comes as a surprise to new beneficiaries, TSCL reports. More than half of the survey’s participants said they do not have any dental insurance coverage. Also, the high cost of treatment is frequently cited by those who aren’t getting the care they need.
“I do not have the $7,000 I was told that I needed to get my teeth fixed. They need to either be pulled and a bridge put in, or root canaled,” said Elizabeth, a retiree living in Colorado. “Being on a limited income, I do not see getting any of this done, and so it affects my health negatively. Without dental care, I’m not as healthy as I could be.”
Advancing age puts many retirees at risk of oral health problems, TSCL says. For example, dry mouth is a common cause of cavities, and it is a side effect of more than 500 medications. Periodontal disease also is widespread, though it can be prevented with regular dental visits and cleanings. Plus, research shows a strong link between oral health and other diseases.
“Poor oral health makes serious medical conditions more difficult to treat,” said Johnson.
Researchers have found links between gum disease and other inflammatory conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, respiratory disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Improved oral care, though, can reduce medical costs in patients with inflammatory diseases, TSCL notes.
“To improve health outcomes for beneficiaries and reduce Medicare spending on diabetes and other inflammatory diseases, Medicare needs to cover routine dental care,” Johnson said, and more than 81% of the participants in the survey agree.
TSCL supports federal legislation that would address the issue. HR 576, the Seniors Have Eyes, Ears, and Teeth Act introduced by Representative Lucille Royball-Allard of California, would expand Medicare to provide routine dental care. Also, S22, the Medicare Dental Benefit Act introduced by Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, would provide coverage for dental care as well.