Oral health matters in the fight for racial and economic justice.
May 25, 2018
Oral health is integral to overall health, and has drastic implications on a number of other quality of life indicators. Yet unfortunately, millions of people in this country lack access to the dental care they need to lead healthy lives, largely because they can’t afford it. Indeed, even though tooth decay is virtually entirely preventable, it remains the most common chronic disease among children in the United States.
There is wide variation in Medicaid coverage for adults between states, and no coverage benefit for Medicare. Accordingly, adults living below the poverty level visit the dentist significantly less than people who are not poor. And, although dental care for children is covered under Medicaid, in 2015, fewer than 50% of Medicaid-insured children had visited a dentist in the past year.
Dentistry, like medicine more broadly, was shaped by and reflects our country’s history of segregation and structural racism. As a result, communities of color experience greater oral health problems and receive fewer preventive dental services than white people. And increasingly, misguided and harmful anti-immigrant policies have created a climate of fear that is discouraging families in immigrant communities from seeking out the regular, preventive dental care everyone needs.
When left untreated, tooth decay can cause significant pain, require high-cost emergency care, and even result in death. Infections in the mouth are linked to a broad range of health problems, including heart disease, preterm birth and low birthweight, difficulty eating, and weight issues. Moreover, poor oral health can hinder educational attainment for children, impact job prospects for adults, and undermine seniors’ quality of life.
To ensure strong, healthy communities, we must improve access to oral health care. Even in face of the assault on access to healthcare being waged by the Trump Administration and congressional Republicans, state and local leaders can take action. Some opportunities include:
Investment in strong oral healthcare systems is cost effective, improves well-being, and saves lives. It should be a high priority for all of our lawmakers and every one of our communities.