Older adults have the lowest rates of dental insurance in the U.S. and the cost is a major barrier for many in seeking dental care. It is known that Medicare, by covering medical services, improves health outcomes and reduces racial health inequities among older adults, but it has the exact opposite effect on dental care.
With very limited exceptions, traditional Medicare does not cover dental services. Medicare Advantage plans can offer dental services, but the extent of coverage varies. Federal efforts to expand Medicare dental coverage have not passed and policy debates about dental benefits are ongoing.
Does Medicare Cover Oral Health? Comparing Dental Care Coverage for Older Adults
Researchers analyzed national data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys from 2010 to 2019, examining changes in dental insurance and oral health care immediately after respondents became eligible for Medicare. The surveys included community-dwelling adults ages 50 to 85.
They found that both traditional Medicare and Medical Advantage beneficiaries experienced immediate and long-term reductions in dental services use after Medicare enrollment. While the total number of annual dental visits did not change, the number of visits for restorative procedures, such as fillings or crowns, decreased by 8.7 percent.
Adults also experienced an increase in complete edentulismloss of all teethwhich puts people at higher risk of poor nutrition, lower quality of life, and progression of cognitive impairment.
Loss of teeth can have several negative downstream effects. It’s associated with many geriatric conditions, including frailty, and cognitive function.
The survey data used did not allow them to follow participants over long periods, and the changes detected could be confounded by other life changes at age 65, such as retirement or the receipt of Social Security income.
Using other forms of survey data could help investigators focus on at-risk populations, such as adults living in long-term care facilities, and could help to identify and compare what dental benefits Medicare Advantage programs offer.
Without dental coverage for adults who are eligible for Medicare, there was a rise in loss of teeth after age 65 among nearly 1 in 20 adults, which represents millions of Americans.
These findings not only capture the magnitude of the problem but also point to the opportunity to improve oral healthcare access and outcomes, should policymakers expand Medicare coverage to include dental services.
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