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Op-Ed: Would ‘Trumpcare’ Be Bad for New Jersey’s Teeth?

Nearly 500,000 state residents now qualify for dental care that was out of their reach before the ACA; the ACHA wants to strip away that essential coverage

cecile a. feldman
Cecile A. Feldman

Obamacare has been good for America’s teeth and gums. But if Republicans succeed in demolishing it, as President Donald Trump continues to vow, millions of children and many adults could lose dental coverage, prompting a rise in infections and disease, from gingivitis to oral cancer.

Pediatric dental care is listed as an “essential” benefit under Obamacare (also known as the Affordable Care Act), and many adults now have access to treatment as a result of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. In New Jersey alone, nearly 500,000 state residents now qualify for dental care that was out of their reach before.

After the GOP-created American Healthcare Act was withdrawn last month, Trump voiced his determination to find an alternative. The latest version of the bill would allow states to opt out of the essential-benefits provision and halt Medicaid expansion. Whatever the fate of healthcare, we urge lawmakers to keep pediatric dental benefits. In fact, we would ask them to go even further by designating dental care as an “essential” benefit for adults.

At the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, the state’s largest oral-healthcare provider, our students and faculty have seen firsthand the life-changing results of timely, accessible care.

We’ve seen patients who suffered from malnutrition because they couldn’t eat solid food thrive after getting new dentures. More patients with facial and cranial deformities were able to get surgery. More children were able to get cavities filled and learn the importance of brushing and flossing. Patients with excruciating toothaches didn’t have to go to the ER because they lacked dental coverage. Instead, they were treated at our clinics, saving taxpayer dollars. At our facilities in Newark and South Jersey, the number of Medicaid patients has increased from 30 percent to more than 50 percent under Obamacare.

Fatal Dental Infections

It’s time for America to recognize that dental care is essential. Oral healthcare is a crucial component of overall healthcare, encompassing far more than white teeth, dental fillings, and the occasional root canal. An untreated tooth infection can be fatal if it spreads to the bloodstream. Conditions like periodontitis, a serious form of gum disease, are linked to diabetes and coronary artery disease.

Poor dental health affects school performance, earnings potential, and even national security. Children with poor dental health are three times more likely than others to miss school due to tooth pain. Studies have shown that good oral health can increase income levels up to 5 percent since employers can be reluctant to hire workers with diseased or missing teeth. In 2012, the Bipartisan Policy Center found that 62 percent of new Army recruits were not immediately deployable because of a significant dental issue.

Dental coverage is one of the most requested benefits among employees at private companies, but it is offered by only two-thirds of large employers and less than one-third of small businesses. Even when workers have dental insurance, out-of-pocket payments are often costly.

We must ensure that dental care for children and vulnerable adults in New Jersey is not at risk. We urge state residents to demand this right for all Garden State families. Wellness is measured from head to toe, and the mouth is not exempt. We are all entitled to a body that is healthy and pain-free.

Cecile A. Feldman is the dean of Rutgers School of Dental Medicine.

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