There’s a reason why the average time people wait for another dental appointment is three years. For many, dental insurance coverage is simply out of reach.
Arletha Chapman, for example, is an 86-year-old mother in need of dental work. Her dental insurance had such a small level of coverage that her daughter, Jocelyn, called it “a waste of money,” also noting that most medical offices didn’t even accept their insurance at all.
Medicare and Medicaid unfortunately don’t cover the majority of dental care. On top of that, 11.9% of men don’t have any healthcare coverage.
Luckily, Chapman was able to get the dental care she needed through a clinic from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. Seniors were eligible for treatment discounts, and the clinic staff charged just half of the $3,000 quoted by private dentists for the removal of five teeth as well as denture fitting services.
The clinic also allowed her to get on a payment plan, helping her to stay out of debt. The latest statistics from the Federal Reserve indicate consumer debt in the United States continues to increase, reaching nearly $3.4 trillion in May 2015, and the National Bankruptcy Forum cites medical debt as the number one reason people file for bankruptcy.
“It would have cost us a fortune otherwise,” Jocelyn Chapman told The Baltimore Sun.
Unfortunately, this is somewhat of an isolated case. Health professionals are quickly becoming concerned that other elderly Maryland residents may not be able to afford the dental care they need, which has elicited both the Maryland Department of Aging and the Maryland Department of Health to undergo an exploration into ways to expand elderly dental care access.
As of now, children of low-income families can receive coverage through the Maryland Children’s Health Program in addition to Medicaid, and healthcare advocates alike have high hopes that the General Assembly could pass legislation to give senior citizens the same privilege.
Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, thinks any approved legislation related to dental care could significantly save the state money due to fewer emergency room visits related to dental issues. Other advocates maintain that oral health is a major aspect of overall health.
“Most dental conditions can be prevented through good regular home care plus visits to the dentist,” said dental director at the state Office of Oral Health, Dr. Gregory McClure. “We are trying to tell people they shouldn’t neglect oral health. It should be right up there at the top of the list when maintaining your health.”
Janet Yellowitz, director of special care and geriatrics in the University of Maryland School of Dentistry’s Department of Oral Surgery, also sees regular dental care as a top priority, particularly for the elderly. They often have limited mobility, or tremors, which can make it difficult not only to get to the doctor, but also to keep up with basic hygiene such as brushing and flossing. Those with mental disorders such as dementia may forget entirely to brush, Yellowitz says.
Over time, any underlying dental issues will inevitably get worse.
“Too many of the elderly ignore the dental disease for a while and it never gets better,” said Yellowitz. “If there were Medicaid coverage, it would be a different world.”
More than half of the adult U.S. population surveyed over age 50 agree that a smile is the one physical feature that stays the most attractive as we age, according to a survey by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. And thanks to assistance from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry clinic, seniors like Chapman will be able to show off their brand new smile soon enough.