Michael F. Cannon is the director of health policy studies with the Cato Institute, and he recently sat down to debate Obamacare with Kathleen Sebelius, the former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
While the Affordable Care Act has been a source of division and controversy since its inception in 2008, the effects of the law on dental care have received scant attention. During the debate with Sebelius, Cannon spoke about Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old boy from Prince George’s County, Maryland.
When Deamonte’s mother couldn’t find a dentist that would accept their Medicaid coverage, the boy developed an infection in an abscessed tooth. The infection quickly spread to Deamonte’s brain, killing him before he could celebrate his 13th birthday.
Because Medicaid pays dentists such a low rate for their services, many dentists refuse to accept any Medicaid patients whatsoever. In Maryland, just one in six dental offices will schedule appointments with Medicaid patients. And according to the Cato Institute, Deamonte’s mother and local non-profits searched desperately to find someone to help him.
Sebelius said that though the incident was a tragedy, it had little bearing on the Affordable Care Act. She noted that few dentists accept uninsured patients at all. No matter their opinion on Obamacare, experts on all side of the political divide can agree that lack of access to dental care can have wide-ranging effects.
The American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry reports that fully 99.7% of Americans believe a smile is an important social asset, and 75% believe an unattractive smile would hurt their career prospects. But even with Medicaid coverage, many people struggle to find dentists that can provide medically necessary dental care as well.
A November study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association found that many adults who rely on Medicaid live with unresolved dental problems. The study found that almost half of the adults who visited an emergency department (ED) for dental care did not visit a dentist in the following six months.
“Whether the millions of people visiting EDs for dental problems receive the dental care required to resolve their problems is a major unanswered question,” wrote the study authors.