On January 30, 26-year-old Vadim Kondratyuk of California, a father to two small children, died from a dental infection that spread to his blood and his lungs. Tragically, Vadim is not alone. Each year, millions of people go without treatment to their oral diseases, the effects of which can range from toothaches and pain to death. Ten years ago the death of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old who died from a dental infection that spread to his brain, galvanized oral health advocates around the need to improve access to dental care. Both Vadim and Deamonte’s deaths were preventable with access to affordable dental care. Without access, many of our friends, family, neighbors and children are at risk.  

Threats to Oral Health Care

Oral health is essential to overall health yet dental disease impedes daily life, including people’s ability to eat, learn and find employment. Congressional Republicans and the current administration’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a replacement plan in place and discussions of cutting Medicaid funding through block granting or per capita caps put millions at risk. In the seven years since the passage of the ACA, 22 million Americans, predominantly those in underserved communities, have gained new access to health and, in some cases, oral health care.  

Repeal of the ACA, especially without a replacement plan, would reverse this growth in coverage by dismantling the 23 oral health provisions established in ACA payment, delivery and workforce issue changes. This would roll back expansions to health and dental care, resulting in one less mechanism for dental coverage for a population that has seen huge disparities in dental disease, shift costs back to families both inside and outside the Marketplaces, and eliminate health and dental coverage for newly insured Americans.

But that is not the only threat to oral health coverage. Discussions of cutting Medicaid funding through block granting or per capita caps put health coverage at risk for 73 million of the most vulnerable members of our society including children, older adults and people with disabilities. Currently, full dental benefits to adult Medicaid enrollees vary from state to state but are required for children either through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Learn more about the impact of proposed changes in this fact sheet and webinar.

Some Communities Will be Hit Hard by Proposed Cuts

Oral health disease, which is largely preventable, is the most common chronic disease in children – five times more common than asthma – and affects communities of color at disproportionate rates. For example, in 2015 the National Health and Examination Nutrition Survey found that Hispanic (46 percent) and non-Hispanic Black (44 percent) children younger than eight years of age are more likely to have cavities than non-Hispanic White children (31 percent). The inability to access dental services also affects the vulnerable, the underserved, and communities of color at disproportionate rates.  Even with all of this data, oral health funding is often still one of the first programs to be cut during difficult financial times.

There is mounting evidence linking poor oral health with poor overall health outcomes. Good oral health is critical to overall wellbeing, but without access to oral health care we are all only one step away from being in Vadim’s and Deamonte’s shoes. To prevent a dental crisis we must defend the gains we made through the Affordable Care Act and push to make oral health care more accessible in our health care system.