U.S. policymakers need to take significant steps to help low-income Americans get access to treatment for their teeth and gums, the American Dental Association (ADA) announced this week.
Currently, the vast majority of the oral health problems that occur in the U.S. stem from only a small percent of the country’s population - low-income Medicaid recipients, ADA president Dr. Richard Haught told AMN Health.
Over the long-term, dental problems can cause significant health problems in other parts of the body, he added.
“There’s no question that oral health is an integral part of overall health,” Haught said.
He explained that Medicaid, the joint state-federal program that provides health care for the needy, is currently “very underutilized” in areas of oral health, for many reasons. For instance, reimbursement levels are extremely low, he said, falling only at between 10 and 20 percent.
The more states implement the ADA changes, the more they will be able to “make a dent” in the pattern of a small number of people shouldering most of the country’s oral health problems, he said.
During the ADA’s 145th Annual Session in Orlando, Florida, held this month, members approved a recommendation on how to improve access to oral health care among Medicaid recipients.
In an interview, Haught explained that some of the recommendations include providing low-income families with more information about the importance of healthy teeth and gums.
In addition, the report asks states to encourage 75 percent of dentists to accept Medicaid patients. People on Medicaid now have to drive an average of 35 miles to reach a dentist, Haught said. Increasing the number of dentists who take Medicaid would cut patients’ driving time to 12 miles - the current average for patient not on Medicaid, he noted.
Haught added that the ADA presented the recommendation in the form of a white paper, which describes the changes other states have made to improve access to oral health care among Medicaid recipients.
“These aren’t things we think will work, these are things that are actually working in other states,” he said.
Haught noted that he encourages every ADA member to discuss these recommendations with their legislators, to try to change public policy. He said that between seven and eight states have already made significant improvements in access to oral health care, and he hopes this report will encourage at least three or four more states to follow suit.
As part of the meeting, the ADA also announced that it opposes the practice of tongue splitting, a form of body art in which people slice their tongues in half, giving them a reptilian appearance.
This practice can interfere with talking, swallowing and speaking, as well as increase the risk of infection and bleeding problems, Haught explained.
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Amalia K. Gagarina, M.S., R.D.