Sanders holds town meeting on dental “crisis”

Vermont Town Meeting on Dental Crisis

MONTPELIER, Vt., March 10 – U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) focused attention on a dental crisis in the United States during a town meeting today at Montpelier High School attended by about 200 people.

“As a nation, we don’t talk about it much, but there is a dental crisis in America,” said Sanders, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. “This is an issue of huge consequence, but it doesn’t get the type of attention deserves.”

The senator, who presided at a late February hearing in Washington, D.C., on the dental crisis, announced today he plans to introduce legislation to make dental care more affordable and accessible.

In preparation for the hearing and today’s town meeting, Sanders asked people from Vermont and across the country to share their experiences. More than 1,300 people wrote to the senator, including nearly 400 Vermonters. He began the town meeting by playing recordings of Vermonters who sent him their stories.

Laura Austan, 53, of Brattleboro, was one of them. “Between the uncovered medical expenses, and the lack of dentists in my area, I haven’t regularly seen a dentist in 13 years, almost 14 at this point,” she said. “I now have a missing filling, a broken tooth, a cracked tooth, and gingivitis. And I’m sure at some point I’ll be losing most of my teeth. We have very few dentists in this area, and very few that will take Medicare. We need better affordable dental care in Vermont, desperately.”

Dr. Jeff Berkowitz, the Vermont State Dental Society president, spoke at the outset of the meeting. “We agree that barriers of dental care continue to plague Vermonters,” said Berkowitz, whose association represents more than 350 dentists. “We can do better than this in Vermont.”

According to a report distributed at the meeting, 47 million people live in places where it is difficult to access dental care. More than 130 million Americans do not have dental insurance. One quarter of U.S. adults ages 65 or older have lost all of their teeth. About 17 million low-income children do not see a dentist each year. Only 45 percent of Americans age 2 and older saw a dental provider in the past 12 months. Although most oral health conditions are preventable, 60 percent of kids age 5 to 17 have cavities. Tooth decay, the report said, is five times more common among children than asthma.

In Vermont, Sanders said, there has been progress. There now are dental facilities serving 25,000 patients at community health centers in eight of the state’s 14 counties. “We are working on two more,” Sanders said. Vermont now ranks first in the nation in access to dental care for children, but more than 40 percent of the children still don’t have a regular dentist.

In addition to expanding dental access at federally qualified community health centers, an effective way to address the problem is by embedding hygienists in schools. “Putting dental clinics in schools is a real opportunity to address some the serious problems we have been talking about,” Sanders said.

While oral health problems can affect anyone, low-income people, racial or ethnic minorities, pregnant women, older adults, and people who live in rural areas have the hardest time getting to see a dental provider.

Unless the situation is addressed it is likely to get worse. At a time when there are nearly 10,000 too few dental providers in the United States, dental schools are graduating fewer new dentists than the number who retire each year.

Kiah Morris of Bennington also shared her story at the town meeting. “Today, I greet you with a smile that is missing three teeth,” she said. “Dental care should not have to be a luxury.”

“There is no question in my mind that thousands of people need dental care in this state and they are not getting it,” Sanders said. “This is a solvable problem.”

To listen to the recordings of Vermonters who shared their experiences, click here.

Contact: Michael Briggs (202) 224-5141

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  • The dental problem is no different than the crisis with medical doctors, especially primary care doctors. The situation is fixable but only if we changes the laws and incentives. We need to make 1) medical/dental schools afforable,
    2) tort reform so doctors/dentists can utilize best practices, not low legal risk practices 3) get insurance companies out of the profit making roles where they micromanage everything we do in the name of profits. It just takes political courage.

  • Marty McMahon

    Dental insurance covers only a part of the care, and the costs are so high that even with insurance some of us cannot afford to pay the balance. An example: filling 3 cavities in 40 minutes resulted in a $900 bill of which I was to pay $300.
    I was shocked. I thought they had forgotten to bill insurance.
    I would not put all the reason for the high fees on Torts or dental school costs. Something else operating here?

  • What are the implications of healthcare reform on dental care?

  • Curtis Sinclair

    Tort reform is the last thing that is needed. It is almost impossible to sue a dentist for bad work. I know because I got butchered by a dentist in 2004. No lawyer would take the case because there wasn’t enough money in it. Eight years and $25,000 later I am still in pain.

    I suppose tort reform of a kind IS needed. They should make it EASIER to sue a dentist. Or doctor.

    In my view there are too many bad dentists. The Board of Dental Examiners should be pulling the licenses of the worst dentists. All they do is give them a slap on the wrist at most.

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