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Half of adults over 65 lack dental insurance, poll finds

By Dental Tribune International
August 03, 2020

ANN ARBOR, Mich., U.S.: Oral health is integral to good health at every age. Yet older adults can have unique oral health needs and barriers to accessing dental care, including higher rates of health conditions that could contribute to oral health problems and lower rates of dental coverage. A survey has found that nearly all older Americans support the addition of a dental benefit to the Medicare program that covers most people over age 65.

In December 2019, the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging asked a national sample of 1,030 adults aged 65–80 about dental insurance, oral health, dental care utilization and access, and their perspectives on proposed changes to Medicare to cover dental care.

Ninety-three percent of people between the ages of 65 and 80 favor including dental coverage in traditional Medicare, though the percentage dropped to 59% when they were asked whether they would favor it even if they had to pay more for their Medicare benefits. Just over half of the older adults polled (53%) said that they currently have dental coverage. Half of this group are covered as employees or retirees, or as spouses of employees.

Another quarter said that they have dental coverage because they have chosen to get their Medicare coverage through a Medicare Advantage plan offered by a commercial insurance company. In fact, 72% of those with Medicare Advantage coverage said they had chosen their plan in part because it covered dental care.

Whether respondents have insurance or not, cost plays a role in dental decisions, the poll showed. One in five of the older adults polled said they had delayed getting dental care or gone without it in the past two years. The majority of these respondents said cost or insurance problems played a role in this decision. Those without dental insurance and those with lower incomes were more likely to say that they had delayed or gone without oral care.

“These results suggest that health care providers and policymakers should seek solutions to better identify and address how cost and other factors act as barriers to dental care among older adults,” said Dr. Domenica Sweier who is a clinical associate professor of dentistry at the University of Michigan. Sweier helped develop the poll questions and analyze the results. She said that providers and policymakers would continue to seek solutions and added: “This will be important to preventing health and social consequences of unmet oral health needs in this population.”

“Coverage of dental care, as well as vision and hearing care, is critical for the long-term health of our population,” explained Dr. Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research for AARP, which is the nation’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering Americans over the age of 50. “Even simple teeth cleanings may not be affordable to seniors living on fixed incomes, so having coverage for dental benefits may help address that problem.”

The poll also shines additional light on the growing body of evidence linking oral health and overall health and well-being.

The survey, titled Dental Care and Coverage After 65: Experiences and Perspectives, was published online in March/April 2020.

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