US Dental Health Crisis Demands Universal Coverage

Despite the rising cost of care and deteriorating conditions across the country, dental care has been all but forgotten in the partisan infighting about the Affordable Care Act over the last eight years. The CDC, in their summary of dental health across the United States, reports that approximately 15 percent of all children across the country have untreated cavities. Furthermore, a significant racial and income disparity in dental health serves as a further indicator that the current dental healthcare system is broken. Our political leaders must rally around universal dental coverage and improve access to dental care and they must do so immediately.

Americans have become significantly more adept at dental home care over the previous generations. Better market tools for plaque removal, as well as improved brushing habits and water fluoridation, have contributed to a decrease in cavities in the general population for several decades. Hispanic and black children are significantly more likely to have untreated dental caries. Additionally, for those who can afford access to dental care, improvements in technology have made the process significantly less painful while improving results. However, as insurance premiums and the costs of dental procedures rise, more and more Americans find themselves unable to afford regular dental care, and thus are faced with serious implications for their health, career and children as they struggle with deteriorating dental health and hygiene.

According to a report published by Delta Dental, for every American who lacks access to health insurance, nearly three Americans lack access to basic dental insurance. Dental coverage also appears to be a determining factor both in regularity of dental health checkups and in the quality of care they receive. Over 40 percent of those who lack dental coverage have not visited the dentist in the last year, compared to roughly 21 percent of those who are covered. The most damaging impact has been on children, who are the only group of people in the United States to see their cavity rate increase over the last decade. Furthermore, lack of regular dental screening can lead to later detection of oral cancers, leading to significantly increased health care costs associated with the treatment of late-stage cancer. Oral and facial pain, left untreated, cause thousands of Americans to miss work over the course of a year, resulting in significantly decreased productivity.


The driving factor leading to fewer Americans receiving is rising premiums and costs. While premiums for dental care are rising more slowly than other health insurance costs, these fees can have a deeply destabilizing impact on low-income families already facing rising rents and stagnant wages. The rising costs also effect small businesses, struggling to afford their insurance premiums, who cannot continue to shoulder the burden of increased costs. Many dental procedures are complex and expensive. Individuals and families struggling to make ends meet will often forego root canals and fillings, choosing to endure the significant pain of the underlying caries or opting for cruder treatment methods like extractions. The strain of the significant pain and the degradation of dental health over time cause significant personal and economic troubles, and lead to lost production and increased stress for the individual and the person around them.


A simple solution to this problem exists. Providing national dental insurance, either through a single-payer system or nonprofit public dental options, has been shown to significantly reduce dental costs while improving the quality of dental health across the population. Many other countries, including nearly every developed country, provide some form of universal access to dental care. These countries almost always see significant improvements in their population’s dental health while spending less per capita than the Unites States. In fact, the United States spends far and way the most per citizen on dental care for no demonstrable gain.


Our politicians, by ignoring this crisis and bickering across party lines, have failed the United States. Health care, which includes dental care, is necessary for a person to live a successful and fulfilled right, and we have seen that the current system is failing our country. The longer we continue down this failed road, the harder it will be to enact meaningful reform and change our dental care system for the better. The time is long past for our government to put aside the interests of profiteering dental insurance companies and provide universal dental coverage.

Nancy Mitchell