Dentistry needs to be a bigger part of healthcare

As a country, we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of advancements in health care. Though we have made tremendous progress to treat and prevent many diseases, one area frequently overlooked is oral health. Access to oral health should not be a luxury reserved only for some. It is a fundamental right that must be extended to every American, regardless of their background or zip code.

I recently sat down with Myechia Minter-Jordan, president and CEO of CareQuest Institute for Oral Health, for Chew on This, a livestream conversation series on health and equity. We discussed the connections between oral health and overall health, and the need to strengthen coverage and access for patients.

In the conversation, I reflected on my own personal experiences with oral health. I know firsthand the impacts that oral health can have on overall health — and the other challenges that poor oral health can create. When I was growing up in Harbor Gateway, I don’t remember a time when my own father had teeth, and I had my own issues with oral health and cavities. One of the reasons is that we drank a lot of soda, as it was heavily marketed towards Latino communities at the time and there wasn’t widespread education about the impacts that soda and sugar could have on oral health. Tooth loss wasn’t unusual in our community, and decades later, it’s still a big problem in Latino communities.

Recent research from CareQuest Institute shows that Latino adults are more likely than other adults to lose at least one permanent tooth, and almost 15 percent of Latino adults over 65 have no teeth at all. Black communities have the same issue — more than half of Black adults reported they’ve lost one or more permanent teeth.

Systemic barriers, like language barriers, lack of culturally competent care, and high costs all prevent Americans in communities like mine from accessing preventative and essential dental care. For example, it has been difficult to find an affordable dentist for my 82-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s, and is on Medicare and Medicaid. Approximately one-third of both Medicare and Medicaid recipients do not have dental coverage.

Oral health isn’t a matter of convenience — these barriers can have long-lasting impacts on our ability to work, learn, and live a healthy life. We must change our health care policy and treat oral health as essential health care. That’s why I introduced the Medicare Dental Benefit Act and the Medicaid Dental Benefit Act, crucial bills that will bridge the gap for millions of Americans who do not have access to dental care and provide affordable dental care to underserved communities.

However, our policy must also go beyond emergency care and begin to address the root causes. Prevention and education are key — we must not only increase access to preventative dental screenings and cleanings but educate individuals on the importance of oral health to their overall health. My bill would require state Medicaid programs to provide coverage for preventative care, including routine dental cleanings and X-rays. The bills also create a program to provide oral health outreach and education programs. As studies have continued to show the deep connections between oral health and chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and heart disease, education will be more important than ever.

This cannot and should not be a partisan issue. It’s a matter of American’s health and wellbeing, which every member of Congress should advocate for. It even reduces costs, keeping people out of emergency rooms for routine dental care saves money and results in better outcomes for everyone.

To have a health care system — and health care policy — that truly treats the whole person, we must include oral health in the conversation.


Paul L Gregory DDS Owner of Paul L Gregory DDS

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