By Bob Herman, Crain News Service
WASHINGTON (Dec. 11, 2014) — Dental care is a peculiar niche of the U.S. healthcare system.
Even though teeth and gums are just as much part of the human body as kidneys or elbows, they are insured differently — a lot differently.
When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) was written and debated, comprehensive dental insurance never really became a focal point. Lawmakers ultimately created a few provisions that may boost access to oral care, but dental coverage still escapes the grasp of millions of Americans.
Dental plans garnered national attention after it was discovered that Health & Human Services (HHS) overstated 2014 enrollment figures in the ACA's insurance exchanges. The government included almost 400,000 stand-alone dental plans, which are much cheaper and separate from standard health plans. After accounting for those, the number of people who were enrolled in full-service medical plans was 6.7 million. A House committee plans to grill CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner on the numbers Dec. 9.
Lost in that discussion, however, is the question of how much the law has done to advance dental care. Not enough, advocates argue.
The ACA mandated pediatric dental services as one of the 10 essential health benefits for health plans, but adult dental services were excluded. In addition, all health plans must cover oral health risk assessments for children up to 10 years old with no copayment, coinsurance or deductible. The law also allowed states to expand Medicaid and its related dental benefits to more low-income children and adults.
But large gaps in coverage remain, primarily for adults who don't qualify for Medicaid.
“More children have been enrolled (in dental plans) through the Affordable Care Act,” said Maxine Feinberg, president of the American Dental Association (ADA). “However, it really only helped adults in a minimal way.”
About 187 million people have some form of dental insurance, according to the National Association of Dental Plans. Coverage is provided through two main outlets: employers or public programs like Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.
A majority of people who have dental insurance get it through their employer. Almost nine in 10 employers with 200 or more workers and about half of all companies offer dental benefits, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The most common forms of coverage are like “prepaid gift cards,” Feinberg said. Routine cleanings and other preventive services are completely covered, and all other dental care needs are covered up to a yearly maximum figure.
But that leaves about 130 million Americans who have to pay for their dental care completely out of pocket or rely on supplemental dental policies. That figure includes millions of Medicare beneficiaries. Traditional Medicare does not cover dental care unless it's an emergency procedure during a hospital stay.
Medicare, Medicaid pitfalls
Cost and a lack of dental providers are cited as the key barriers for obtaining care. In some instances, the results have been lethal. The most famous case was Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old boy in Maryland who died in 2007 after bacteria from an infected tooth spread to his brain. Deamonte's family lost its Medicaid coverage. More recently, in 2011, Kyle Willis, 24, died in Ohio after a wisdom tooth infection forced him to the emergency department. Mr. Willis had no insurance and couldn't afford antibiotics.
Ultimately, the ACA is expected to bring some kind of dental coverage to 8.7 million kids and 17.7 million adults by 2018, according to an ADA-commissioned analysis conducted by Seattle-based actuarial consulting firm Milliman. A vast majority of those gains will be through Medicaid expansion, and some asterisks apply.