Lacking money, insurance and dentists, oral health takes a back seat, and many rural areas are barely on the bus

A dentist works at a Remote Area Medical Clinic in Wise, Va.
(Associated Press photo by Steve Helber)

Dr. Nikki Stone is a dentist who works in Hazard, Ky., at a community-run clinic. A native of the mountains, she knew that children in the region weren’t getting enough dental care, but she was still “staggered by the prevalence of dental disease when she began examining them in 2004,” Margot Sanger-Katz reports for the National Journal. “Large numbers of the kids had never seen a dentist. Half had untreated tooth decay, and nearly 20 percent had urgent needs — more than six cavities or an active abscess. She and her staff ‘cried a lot,’ she recalls. Crisscrossing four counties in her van, she painted fluoride on all the teeth and sent notes home with the children who needed immediate attention. In the early years, only 8 percent of those youngsters with urgent problems got the care they needed. The job was like fighting a forest fire on a mountain, she says. ‘I felt like I was standing here on the line of the fire with a squirt gun.'”

In a world of medical priorities, dentistry takes a back seat to most, and In a world of health care, and rural America sometimes appears to not even be on the bus. The net result, writes Sanger-Katz, is that the United States faces a shortage of dentists that is particularly acute in poor, rural regions. “Huge pockets of the country have few (or no) providers. The federal government counts 4,503 mostly rural regions where more than 3,000 people share one dentist,” she notes, “making it tough for many residents to find someone to fix their teeth.”

There seems little hope for any change soon in rural America, even if the federal health-reform law survives. “It deems dental coverage an essential part of any health plan for children, but regulators have yet to spell out what insurers must cover to meet that definition,” Sanger-Katz writes. “The law expands existing loan-repayment funds for dentists who relocate to underserved areas, but it offers no expansion of dental coverage for adults and doesn’t try to integrate dental health into the larger health care system.”Dental disease is the largest unmet health need in the U.S. among both children and adults, according to the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign.
The worst-off are the poor, the young, the old, and those in rural
America, reports Margot Sanger-Katz reports.

Dental disease is among the most common reasons that children
miss school. It’s the most common medical reason that soldiers can’t
deploy. It is a leading cause of emergency-room visits in several
states. For proponents of a freer health care market, who want patients
to be motivated by financial incentives to shop around and avoid
“unnecessary” care, the dental system offers a glimpse of how such a
system might work. And research shows that poor oral health can lead to disease elsewhere in the body.

“For more than 100 years, dentistry has run on a separate — and more
laissez-fair — track than the rest of medicine,” Sanger-Katz writes. “Dentists have their own
schools and treat patients in their own offices; fewer laws and
regulations govern the field. Insurance plans typically demand high
co-pays and limit their payouts for invasive procedures. About half of
all dental expenses are paid out of pocket, compared with less than 10
percent of costs in the overall medical system. This is
the free market. And, in some ways, it has worked: People do not drive
up insurance rates by seeking frivolous procedures. Patients tend to
shop around for care, and prices vary according to local economies. The
rate of dental inflation, although higher than the rate for the economy
overall, is lower than the rate in medicine, which is typically several
points above the growth rate of the gross domestic product. (You don’t
hear policymakers complain about the burden of ‘runaway’ dental costs.)”

“It’s very much a free market, with a greater
spread between the haves and have-nots,” said Burton Edelstein, a
professor of dentistry at Columbia University and the founder of the Children’s Dental Health Project. “Dental insurance is much less widespread than medical insurance; 130
million Americans lacked dental coverage in 2009, but only 50 million
lacked medical coverage,” Sanger Katz-writes. “And with most payouts capped at $1,000 to
$2,000 per year, insurance can’t cover much beyond basic services. Medicare
does not pay for dental care at all, so 70 percent of
seniors lack any dental coverage, according to an Institute of Medicine report. Medicaid also fails to provide meaningful dental access for many of its
beneficiaries: The program pays dentists so poorly for treatment that
only about 20 percent of them see Medicaid patients.” Meanwhile, seven of 61 dental schools closed in the last 30 years, meaning 2,000 fewer dentists every year, a 33 percent drop in supply, just as an
older generation of dentists started retiring.

The result is a crisis. And, in a few lucky rural towns, the result looks like
this: A mobile van outfitted with a volunteer dentist comes to a rural
elementary school and offers free check-ups but no fillings. Or, better yet, a volunteer
army of dentists, dental students and oral surgeons in a region
volunteer for a two-day event at a vast arena where everyone is welcome
to camp overnight for a place in line for care. Some of the dental expertise and hospitality is donated by Ronald McDonald House, or Remote Area Medical out of Knoxville, Tenn., or local community health centers.
And while are limited in their ability to do much more than
prevention, others can offer real dental care but no follow-up. The result is often a brutal kind of dentistry that involves, at best, mass extraction, some advice about what not to drink and explanations about how oral health is connected to overall health. (Read more)

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