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The State of the Dental Union in 2014

Jan 24, 2014

The Affordable Care Act is changing how people buy health insurance and the way health care services are delivered, but significant changes are also happening in dentistry.  In short, most people are going to the dentist less frequently.

Dentistry at the Crossroads

Photo source: Delta Dental

Utilization of dental care services has been declining since 2008, but a 2013 American Dental Association (ADA) report doesn't believe the trend is solely due to the 5-year economic downturn. Dental spending had decreased long before that.

Per-capita spending on dental treatment was growing at almost 4% between 1990 and 2002, but declined precipitously to 1.8% annually from 2002-2008, according to the Health Policy Resources Center at the ADA.  The authors of the 2013 study spanning the years 1997-2011 noted spending has declined even further since, although at a slower rate.

The study claims that organized dentistry has reached a critical moment and cannot afford to be complacent, according to Marko Vujicic, Managing Vice-President of the Health Policy Resources Center at the ADA and co-author of the study.

The study cites many reasons for the downturn in dental utilization, including a decline in people with private dental coverage, the reduction of adult dental benefits by state Medicaid programs, and fee reductions by private insurers.

Another key trend is the increase in dental expenditure finances from public tax dollars. “Ten years ago 4% of dental spending was from CMS (Medicare and Medicaid) programs, and today it is 8%,” Vujicic said. “When you look over time, there has been an increase in the prominence of CMS programs.”

Medicare does not cover dental treatment, but adult dental services are included in states’ Medicaid programs, and some private Medicare Advantage plans include limited dental services.

The study divided dental spending into three age groups: children up to age 20, working-age adults 21-64, and adults 65 and older. Spending among adults 65 and over was significantly higher, but the study projects as more Americans age, the decrease in dental spending among younger age groups may negate the effect of more elderly using more dental services.

As the healthcare system continues changing and adjusting to new challenges, the study notes that dentists will probably face a difficult near future with sluggish dental spending projected through 2040.

“We are not predicting a major rebound if current trends continue,” said Vujicic. 

Vujicic said the Health Policy Resources Center will continue monitoring these and other critical developments in dental care through this transitional period.

Despite the decline in dental visits the past few years, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that oral health often serves as a barometer for potential general health issues, including heart disease, strokes, diabetes and oral cancer. Regular dental checkups are vital for the health of our teeth, but they also can help catch potential general health issues before they become serious, life-altering situations.

If you have been putting off dental visits, click here to see how much you can save on dental plans in your area.

Sources: Dr. Bicuspid, American Dental Association


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