By Steve Pollock, President and Chief Executive Officer
On April 14, Congress passed a bill which will ensure that eight million children across the country have continued access to health insurance by extending funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, for two more years. Just a few days later, President Obama signed the bill into law. The CHIP program has been a critical source of health coverage for children and pregnant women who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to purchase private health insurance. Without passage of this bill, CHIP funding would have expired in September, leaving millions of children and hundreds of thousands of pregnant women without access to comprehensive dental care.
Since its inception in 1997, CHIP has helped children receive routine dental care that they may not otherwise have had access to. To help illustrate its success, a report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 80 percent of CHIP enrollees saw a dentist in the past year, a significantly higher rate of access and use of services than for children who do not have coverage.
Congress has done a commendable job of recognizing the need for continued funding to support children’s health insurance by passing bipartisan legislation to secure its future. This is no small feat. Health equity advocates around the country are breathing a sigh of relief knowing that the health and well-being of our children took precedence over party politics. However, for dental care, we know the battle is not yet over.
Did you know that 83 million Americans still face obstacles in receiving dental care each year? Nearly half of all individuals in a 2013 survey said that over the previous 12 months they or a family member delayed seeing a dentist because they could not afford the expected out-of-pocket costs. Unlike medical insurance, states are not mandated to include adult dental care coverage within Medicaid programs; it is left up to the state to decide.
As a result, many still do not have access to dental benefits. And that hurts families. It is difficult for dentists who treat children with Medicaid or CHIP insurance to turn away parents who have immediate oral health problems but are uninsured. Dental care contributes to a person’s health and well-being over their lifespan – childhood through retirement. Preventive care saves families and taxpayers money by avoiding more costly interventions later on.
Without adult dental benefits for publicly-funded insurance programs, these 83 million Americans will continue to flood emergency rooms for dental issues and contribute to the 164 million work hours missed each year due to oral health problems. And, as recent studies demonstrate, poor oral health may be increasing the cost of treating chronic diseases like diabetes, pre-term pregnancy and heart disease. By ensuring that all have equal access to dental care, we work to improve the lives of millions while reducing healthcare costs.
Congress took a significant bipartisan step to ensure access to dental care for children. Now, state and federal leaders must act to help eliminate barriers for adults so these 83 million Americans can get the care they need to be healthy and stay that way.