This summer, as chairman of the subcommittee on primary health and aging, Senator Bernie Sanders began preparing for a hearing on “The Dental Crisis in America,” which will be held this Wednesday. Part of that effort involved soliciting stories from his constituents and Americans across the country about their experiences with access to affordable dental care. He received over 1,000 responses.
“People who are suffering with dental disease and problems with access have never had a chance to express themselves so they’re taking advantage of this opportunity to do it,” Sanders recently told me.
While the senator is well known for his advocacy of a single-payer healthcare system, he is also a longtime and passionate advocate for the expansion of Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs)—community health centers in underserved areas that provide primary medical care, dental care, mental health counseling and low-cost prescription drugs on a sliding-fee basis. He fought for these centers as a congressman prior to his election to the Senate in 2006, and he was a major player in ensuring that there was a significant investment in FQHCs in the healthcare reform legislation passed in 2010.
But with 47 million people living in areas where it’s still difficult to access dental care, 17 million low-income children not seeing a dentist every year and one-fourth of US adults over age 65 missing all of their teeth, Sanders says there is still a long way to go to address this crisis.
I talked to the senator about this week’s hearing as well as what has driven him to focus on an issue that not many people want to talk about. This is what he had to say:
Senator Bernie Sanders: Absolutely. We have a real crisis both in terms of access to affordable dental care—and not only for lower-income Americans but for many in the middle-class as well—and the consequences of a lack of treatment.
Let’s be clear. There are nearly 50 million Americans living in places where it’s difficult to access dental care, and 130 million Americans do not have dental insurance coverage. As a nation, I think it’s a pretty sad state of affairs when one-fourth of US adults over 65 have lost all of their teeth. What that means for that generation is that they didn’t get proper dental care and their teeth were yanked, rather than being treated. And it’s a sad state of affairs that we have only 45 percent of Americans age 2 and older who saw a dentist in the last twelve months.
If you are one of the people who go to a dentist on a regular basis, who can afford the high cost of dental care, you may not be aware of how serious this crisis is. But the reality is there are tens and tens of millions of Americans who do not have access to a dentist, or who cannot afford dental care even if they have access to it, and this impacts a lot of kids, a lot of seniors, and working people in general.