On September 18, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) reintroduced legislation to expand dental coverage to millions of Americans through Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill, S. 1522, the Comprehensive Dental Reform Act of 2013, also aims to expand access to dental care by:
- increasing funding for more community-based care,
- increasing the number and diversity of oral health professionals,
- educating dental and non-dental health professionals to better meet the oral health needs of vulnerable populations, and
- funding research on prevention and disease management.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) filed the companion bill, H.R. 3120.
Earlier in September, Sen. Sanders convened a panel of experts on the crisis in access to oral health care to give testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. Among the witnesses was Dr. Frank Catalanotto, Professor and Chair of the Department of Community Dentistry & Behavioral Science at the University of Florida College of Dentistry. Dr. Catalanotto is also Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of Oral Health America and a Past President of ADEA (2004-05).
Dr. Catalanotto outlined some of the challenges related to access to oral health care in the U.S. and shared some alarming statistics. He told the committee that 48% of children enrolled in Medicaid are not receiving preventive dental services and 77% are not receiving restorative services. He also touched on the reasons why so few dentists participate in Medicaid. Factors include low Medicaid reimbursement rates, the high overhead costs of private dental practices, and the high cost of dental education.
“Bottom line,” Dr. Catalanotto testified, “we need an oral health workforce that is less expensive than dentists to deliver routine dental services so that dentists can focus on more complex procedures.”
He concluded by informing the committee of some large not-for-profit oral health provider groups that could serve as models for lowering the cost of oral health care and improving access.
A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, produced at Sen. Sanders’ request, supported the Senator’s contention that America faces a “dental crisis.” The report found that the percentage of Americans with dental coverage has changed little since 1996, despite an increase in the number of children covered through publically funded health programs.