Preserving State Adult Dental Program Promotes Health Equity

Grandfather and child smiling about dental access

By Andrew Lofton and Vanetta Abdellatif | January 15, 2021

In this year of near constant turmoil, the pandemic has had a major impact in our state and across the country. During these challenging times, state government needs to support, not reduce, programs that promote better health, especially for those who are already marginalized.

The coronavirus created a significant hole in our state’s budget, from which we are still recovering. In response, this summer state officials went through an exercise to find potential areas to cut, including adult dental coverage through Apple Health. Thankfully, Gov. Inslee’s budget preserves adult dental and other critical safety net programs. We applaud the Governor for recognizing the value of oral health and the importance of this vital service. We strongly encourage legislators to follow suit and maintain these programs in the final budget.

Adult dental coverage for lower-income people through Apple Health (Medicaid) is an essential safety net program that improves health and promotes equity. More than one million lower-income adults rely on Apple Health dental coverage, and that number will likely increase as lower-wage workers continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID.

Preserving Medicaid adult dental also makes good fiscal sense. Only about 30 percent of the program is paid for with state funds. The federal government pays for the remaining 70 percent, which means about $50 million in federal funding each year.

Comprehensive dental coverage for lower-income people is good policy because it prevents small issues from becoming big, more expensive problems. When the state eliminated the adult dental program in 2011, we saw that those with severe dental problems seek care in hospital emergency rooms. Emergency rooms are not equipped to treat dental problems and can only offer pain relief, often opioids.

Medicaid adult dental is a health equity issue. Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color are much more likely to be affected if the state eliminates the dental program. Due in large part to an inability to access care, surveys of Washington residents confirm that oral health problems are more common among people of color and those with lower incomes.

Make no mistake –– the health impacts of untreated oral disease can be severe. Oral disease is linked to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, pneumonia and other serious illnesses. Of these, diabetes, heart disease and pneumonia are all risk factors that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Poor oral health also increases the likelihood of complications in pregnancy such as underweight infants or preterm births.  Plus, it’s hard to find a job if you are missing teeth and difficult to keep a job if you are in constant pain from untreated oral disease.

No one’s health status should be determined by the color of their skin, where they live or their income. Equity, common sense and fiscal prudence all demand that the state should keep, not eliminate, programs that help ensure that everyone has access to quality health care and treatment, including dental care, which is essential for overall health.

One of the things we have learned from the pandemic is that we are all in this together, and if we believe that no one should be left behind, we need to take action to support our families, friends, and neighbors who are bearing the brunt of the health and financial costs of COVID.

We need to support efforts and take actions that promote better health for everyone. The state’s Apple Health adult dental program does exactly that.

When the Legislature reconvenes to work on the state budget, we realize they will be facing many tough decisions on how best to respond to the pandemic and promote recovery for our economy and our communities. It is precisely in these times we should all remember the stakes are too high to do anything less than preserve programs that people need to stay healthy.

Andrew Lofton is Executive Director of the Seattle Housing Authority and a Board member of Arcora Foundation, and Vanetta Abdellatif is President and CEO of Arcora Foundation, the Foundation of Delta Dental of Washington.

Read article on the Seattle Medium: