ACA has the opportunity to recognize good oral health as essential for overall health

Jessica HembreeBy Jessica Hembree, HCF program officer

Here we sit with HCF’s Health Madness narrowed down to the Final Four. The final contenders are: complete streets, essential oral health benefits, essential mental health benefits, and smoke-free bars and restaurants.

To make a comparison to the NCAA March Madness tournament, I think essential oral health benefits are the Wichita State of the tournament, a bit of a dark horse. As HCF’s resident guru on oral health, I am thrilled to see essential oral health benefits advancing to the Final Four.

For too many years and for complicated historical reasons, we have divorced the mouth from the body. When doctors ask patients to open up and say “Ahhh,” for a tonsil check, they glance right over those pearly whites, but why?

Oral health is often forgotten, but we know that oral health has dramatic impacts on overall health. Sure, we all know that cavities cause pain and could cause tooth loss, but did you know that the same bacteria that cause cavities can cause increased risk of heart disease?

Also of note is the importance of good oral health for folks with complex medical issues like cancer or diabetes. Before cancer patients can undergo certain chemotherapy regimens, they need to achieve perfect oral health, as caries (the bacteria that cause cavities) can cause complications to chemotherapy.

Despite the importance of oral health, there is an entirely different system of care and insurance for oral health. Many of us have a separate insurer for dental benefits than medical benefits. While 16 percent of Americans are medically uninsured, three times as many are dentally uninsured.

As the federal government moves forward with implementing the Affordable Care Act, they have the important job of deciding what benefits are “essential” in order for an insurance plan to be offered through health insurance exchanges, now being called health insurance marketplaces. HHS released their regulations at the end of February and while oral health is considered an essential benefit for children, adults will be left without dental benefits. It’s time for this to change.

Far from being cosmetic, good oral health is an essential element in overall health. Oral health parity is the next frontier.

You can vote for Essential Oral Health Benefits in Health Madness until 1 p.m. Sunday, April 7.


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HCF's Local Health Buzz Blog aims to discuss health and health policy issues that impact the uninsured and underserved in our service area. To submit a blog, please contact HCF Communications Officers, Jennifer Sykes, at



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