Dental care is vital to Texans
Imagine that you’re 67 years old and you wake up with a severe toothache. You can’t sleep. You know you might need a root canal or something even more invasive, but you just can’t afford it. You don’t have dental insurance and while you have Medicare, it doesn’t pay for 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 seniors and folks with long-term disabilities. It’s also a concern for millions of working poor Texans who aren’t covered by other social programs.
Since Medicare’s inception, lawmakers haven’t deemed dental care as vital as medical health care. That myth has since been dispelled.
Dental care not only relates to crowns, root canals, dentures and tooth replacement that seniors –and anyone–might need at some point in their lives. It can also prevent the risk that untreated cavities could lead to abscesses and spread disease to other vital organs. In some cases, those conditions can even be fatal. Dental care is health care, but still, Congress ignores pleas to add it to Medicare.
In Tarrant County, about one in five residents younger than 65 does not have health insurance, reporter Ciara McCarthy noted in a story on a free medical and dental clinic that recently provided desperately needed services to residents. That number will only grow because thousands of county residents will lose Medicaid health insurance coverage as pandemic exemptions are lifted and state officials scrutinize enrollees for eligibility.
Texas Medicaid provides dental benefits to people who qualify, but like everything in the program, state leaders have been stingy with care. Medicaid covers pregnant women, children, people with disabilities or families with disabilities, and seniors who need help filling Medicare’s gaps. That’s a fraction of the population of Texas — and it leaves out a lot of people who work hard and contribute but don’t get employer benefits.
In Fort Worth, the need for extensive dental assistance is clear: at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, people waited up to 13 hours to be seen at a clinic hosted with the UNT Health Science Center. The roaming clinic, Remote Area Medical, which came to Fort Worth for its third visit, gets assistance from local health care professionals who donate their time and expertise.
Some of the patients hadn’t received medical care in years because they lacked insurance or funds. Others were given brand new, chronic diagnoses, because so much time had gone by since they’d had proper medical or dental care.
This seems like a travesty in America. We don’t advocate for universal government healthcare by any means and goodness knows, we’re taxed enough as it is. But this is basic healthcare we’re talking about, not throwing money at programs for people for frivolous things.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have steadfastly stood against accepting expanded federal Medicaid benefits, even as local leaders, business and civic groups, and medical groups across the board tout the need. A small state investment would draw 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 program’s longterm sustainability. But Texas is flush with cash and could help a considerable number of people now. There’s always a hypothetical problem down the road to use as an excuse for inaction. But even in a worst-case scenario, in which the state has to scale back benefits, many people could be healthier in the meantime, and that’s a boon to the state.
Adding dental benefits, including preventative, routine, and emergency procedures, would help avoid even costlier problems later, even if only applied to the poorest enrollees in Medicaid and Medicare. Dental screenings can detect issues with diabetes and high blood pressure that, when addressed, vastly improve overall health.
Meanwhile, the Fort Worth community, combining private and public resources, must continue to come together to help. More free clinics such as the one offered at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary would be a good target for philanthropic investments. And we’d see the benefits right away in pain-free smiles that have been hidden for far too long.