In a recent interview with PBS NewsHour, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pushed for greater dental coverage and other federal reforms. “In one way or another, through the National Health Service Corps or other ways, we have got to make sure that we have an ample supply of dentists and other dental providers in areas of the country where low-income people can access those services,” Sanders said.
Sanders’ remarks followed closely on the heels of a first-of-its-kind Senate Subcommittee hearing on the oral health crisis in America and the need for a diversified dental workforce. On February 29, panelists testified about the difficulties many Americans face – particularly the poor, elderly, people in rural areas and those with special needs – in getting dental care. The Senate HELP Committee released a report including stories from more than 1,200 Vermont residents who have struggled to access care. “We’re not just talking about a pretty smile,” Sanders said in his opening remarks. “What we are talking about is people going through their lives in severe pain.”
Panelists, including dentists, dental hygienists and policy experts, described the complex issues that contribute to the dental crisis. Each acknowledged the need for a multi-faceted approach to address the crisis including: improving oral health literacy to educate and engage families, developing new workforce models to expand the reach of dental professionals, and improving coverage under public and private insurance.
Panelists also discussed innovative solutions already underway. Dr. Gary Folse, a Louisiana dentist talked about delivering care in more accessible settings like school-based health centers and mobile clinics. Christy Jo Fogarty, a Minnesota-based dental hygienist and licensed dental therapist, discussed the potential of mid-level providers to significantly increase access. Grant Whitmer, Executive Director of a Community Health Center in Rutland, Vermont, spoke of the growing number of Vermont residents who can now get dental care at newly expanded FQHCs.
Finally, panelists also identified opportunities for Congress to take action. Dr. Burt Edelstein urged the Senators to see that the oral health provisions in Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act and the Affordable Care Act are implemented effectively and that states have appropriate guidance to create a coordinated system, where oral health is part of overall health care.
Both the Members and Panelists expressed strong support for workforce solutions like mid-level provider models in the context of other delivery system reforms. Shelly Geshan of the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign urged the Senators to fund the alternative provider demonstration to gather objective evidence about mid-level providers.
In closing, Senator Sanders indicated he intends to hold a subsequent hearing to unpack the factors that contribute to the high cost of dental care. He is also considering legislation to improve access to dental care.