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Why not dental care for all, New York?

May 3, 2019

Plaza College dental professor Dr. Garland, on the New York Daily News opinion page, addresses studies illustrating how enhanced oral care can help reduce overall medical health risks. You can read the full article here.

Why not dental care for all, New York?

Mayor de Blasio recently unveiled a proposal to significantly expand access to health care for city residents without insurance. Left out of this plan, and often overlooked in the larger discussion about increasing healthcare coverage, is our teeth. And our gums, for that matter.

Oral healthcare is not a luxury or a vanity but an integral part of overall preventative medical care. Just as one keeps a car running properly through routine maintenance, like an occasional oil change and checkup, the human body — much more complex — also needs specific and repeated tune-ups to keep it from breaking down.

Regular cleanings and oral health screenings, part of the recommended bi-annual check-up at the dentist’s office, can be a key part of efforts to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and pregnancy complications, according to the Mayo Clinic.

A recent study established a link between a certain type of gum infection and Alzheimer’s disease, which has become increasingly common in our aging population, now afflicting one of nine Americans over the age of 65.

Oral hygiene examinations are the key to identifying gum disease, tooth decay and other infections that, if caught early, can prevent critically dangerous health outcomes.

Yet many New Yorkers cannot afford basic dental care. Nationwide, 74 million American familieshave no dental insurance, saddling patients with the full cost of examinations, cleanings, x-rays, tooth repair and health screenings, leading many people to skip these visits — a grave mistake.

New York is ranked 30 out of the 50 sates and the District of Columbia in terms of dental wellness. One of three third-grade children are untreated for tooth decay and other oral problems.

One poll by AARP found that one-third of Americans aged 50-64 lack dental coverage and forgo dental care as a result. Some studies even suggest that up to 80% of residents in major metropolitan areas, where the costs of living are high, have limited to no access to affordable dental care.

The cost of a regular dental cleaning in New York City is between $75 and $200, with the recommended frequency of twice annually. For a family of four, this could mean several weeks’ pay.

The Community Dental Clinic at Plaza College in Forest Hills believes its role, as part of New York’s medical community, is to help lead the dental health education process. To illustrate that, the College’s School of Dental Sciences is offering free and low cost dental exams and cleanings.

Of course, this is not necessarily a scalable model. Oral hygienists are specialized professionals with degrees. The care they provide, not to mention the dentists who perform the medical work, cannot fulfill the significant void only through charitable work.

The city has made clear its position that general healthcare is a right for all New Yorkers. The NYC Care plan announced in early January strengthens the city’s public insurance option, MetroPlus, and increases access to NYC Health + Hospitals, including doctors’ visits, pharmacies and mental health services.

Why not oral healthcare? It can be scaled up in exactly the same way. NYC Health + Hospitals offers some dental care, meaning the same approach — improving direct outreach and expanding access to routine doctors’ visits — can be applied to oral healthcare.

It may require increasing the number of dentists and hygienists under the NYC Health + Hospitals umbrella, but the city is spending $100 million on its health plan partially under the assumption that it will produce savings, as more people use less expensive primary care rather than the costly route of going to the emergency room for routine care.

The same logic applies for dental care. Get your teeth cleaned today so you don’t end up in the emergency room tomorrow.

Dr. Garland, DDS, is a clinical professor of Dental Hygiene at Plaza College and a dentist in private practice in New York.


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