SPRINGFIELD, Vt., June 1 - Speaking here at the site of a soon-to-open dental clinic, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Vermont is making progress on access to affordable dental care, but more must be done in Vermont and the nation to address the national crisis.
More than 130 million Americans do not have dental insurance, according to a report prepared for a Senate subcommittee that Sanders chairs. One quarter of U.S. adults ages 65 or older have lost all of their teeth. About 17 million low-income children do not see a dentist each year. Only 45 percent of Americans age 2 and older saw a dental provider in the past 12 months. Although most oral health conditions are preventable, 60 percent of kids age 5 to 17 have cavities. Tooth decay, is five times more common among children than asthma, according to the report.
While oral health problems can affect anyone, low-income people, racial or ethnic minorities, pregnant women, older adults, and people who live in rural areas have the hardest time getting to see a dentist. Unless the situation is addressed it is likely to get worse. At a time when there are nearly 10,000 too few dental providers in the United States, dental schools are graduating fewer new dentists than the number who retire each year.
In Vermont, Sanders said, there has been significant progress. Over the last six years, six new dental clinics have opened at Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs). Within the last year, a new facility at Ludlow, Vt. was opened by the Springfield Medical Care Systems and another clinic will open in Springfield in the future. Altogether, 10 dental clinics will serve more than 25,000 Vermonters at health centers which accept Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance and allow patients to pay on a sliding scale depending on their income.
In addition to expanding dental access at community health centers, an effective way to address the problem is to provide dental care in schools. "Putting dental clinics in schools is a real opportunity to address some of the serious problems we have been talking about," Sanders said.
Sanders is also drafting legislation he plans to introduce in the Senate to address the national crisis. His bill would:
Expand comprehensive dental coverage to millions of Americans through Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans Administration;
Increase access for dental services, by increasing funding for community health centers, school-based clinics and mobile clinics;
Encourage states to increase reimbursement rates and lower the administrative challenges with Medicaid to attract providers;
Address the underlying shortage of providers by expanding the National Health Services Corps scholarship program for oral health professionals, creating an oral health provider loan program, and integrating oral health into overall health by providing oral health education to non-oral health providers.