Imagine you are 67 years old and you wake up with a bad toothache. You can’t sleep. You know you might need a root canal or something more invasive, but you can’t afford it. You don’t have dental insurance and while you have Medicare, it doesn’t cover most dental services.
This is a possible scenario for many of the 4.6 million people enrolled in Medicare in Texas, the federal program that provides health coverage for the elderly and people with long-term disabilities. It is also a concern for the millions of working poor Texans who are not covered by other social programs.
Since the inception of Medicare, policymakers have not considered dental care as important as medical health care. That myth has been dispelled. Dental care isn’t just about the crowns, root canals, dentures, and tooth replacements that seniors – and anyone – need at some point in their lives. It also prevents the risk that untreated cavities can lead to abscesses and spread disease to other vital organs. In some cases, these conditions can be fatal.
Dental care is health care, but still, Congress has ignored requests to add it to Medicare.
In Tarrant County, about one in five residents younger than 65 don’t have health insurance, reporter Ciara McCarthy said in a story on a free medical and dental clinic bag. -or only provide services that are much needed by the residents. That number will only grow as thousands of county residents lose Medicaid health insurance coverage as pandemic exemptions are lifted and state officials screen enrollees for eligibility.
Texas Medicaid provides dental benefits to people who qualify, but like everything else in the program, state leaders are wary. Medicaid covers pregnant women, children, people with disabilities or families with disabilities, and seniors who need help filling Medicare gaps. That’s a fraction of the Texas population — and leaves out many people who work hard and contribute but don’t get employer benefits.
In Fort Worth, the need for more dental help is clear: at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, people wait up to 13 hours to be seen at a clinic run by the UNT Health Science Center. The roaming clinic, Remote Area Medical, which came to Fort Worth for its third visit, received help from local healthcare professionals who donated their time and expertise.
Some of the patients have not received medical care for years because they lack insurance or funds. Some are given new, frequent diagnoses because too much time has passed since they had proper medical or dental care.
It looks like a travesty in America. We are not advocating for universal government health care in any way and goodness knows, we are taxed enough as it is. But this is basic health care we’re talking about, not throwing money at programs for people for things that don’t matter.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have consistently stood against accepting expanded federal Medicaid benefits, even though local leaders, business and civic groups, and medical groups across the board have voiced the need. A small state investment could get nearly a tenfold federal windfall, helping struggling rural hospitals and potentially millions of Texans.
Abbott, Patrick, and other conservative leaders are right to be concerned about the long-term sustainability of the program. But Texas is flush with money and helping a lot of people right now. There is always a hypothetical problem on the road to use as an excuse for inaction. But even in a worst-case scenario, where the state has to restore benefits, more people will be healthier in the meantime, and that’s a benefit to the state.
Increasing dental benefits, including preventive, routine, and emergency procedures, can help prevent more costly problems later, although only available to the poorest Medicaid and Medicare enrollees. Dental screenings can detect diabetes and high blood pressure issues that, if addressed, can improve overall health.
Meanwhile, the Fort Worth community, combining private and public resources, must continue to come together to help. Additional free clinics like those offered by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary would be a good target for philanthropic investment. And we immediately see the benefits of pain-free smiles that have been hidden for a long time.