Op-ed: Oral Health Care Must Not Be Left Out of Colorado's Plan

Jul 16, 2019 | Newsroom

This op-ed was originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette

By Helen Drexler and Joseph Dill

The active and health-conscious have long flocked to Colorado for its fresh mountain air, vast network of rivers and trails, and world-class skiing. But while some may see our state as a beacon of health, Coloradans know our health care system is far from perfect. In fact, too many in our state cannot get the care they need due to high costs or a lack of providers. That is why Governor Jared Polis recently tasked his administration with presenting a proposal for a state option for health care coverage.

When the administration presents its recommendations this fall, there’s one thing we’ll be looking for: a comprehensive approach to health care, one that includes oral care.

Just last week, the Delta Dental Institute — a new national organization focused on advancing oral health through research, community engagement, and advocacy— convened a select group of leaders from across the state to dive into the issue of access to care. We approached the conversation through the lens of oral care. Given our first-hand experience, we know just how critical it is that oral care is part of Colorado’s conversation on health care.

Oral health is closely intertwined with overall health. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, your mouth is a window to the rest of your body’s health. In fact, oral health complications can exacerbate other health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. The good news is 93.5% of Coloradans have medical insurance and can be seen by physicians regularly. The bad news? Only 70.3% have dental insurance. We are optimistic we can close this gap and ensure people are receiving comprehensive care, not segmented care.

Coloradans and Americans want more access to dental benefits. Our research shows that 86 percent of Coloradans support legislation that would improve access to dental benefits for all Americans. In addition, nearly nine in ten Coloradans think dental benefits should be included in programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These numbers hold true at the national level as well. This is non-controversial. Just about everyone agrees policymakers should prioritize oral care, elevating its importance to the same level of general medical care. We’re glad that Colorado has the chance to make that a reality.

We need to include oral care in the conversation because limited access to care remains an issue for many Coloradans.We may have rivers that flow from the Rocky Mountains and world-famous fly-fishing streams, but here in Colorado we also have “dental deserts.”

Of our 64 counties, eight are considered dental deserts, meaning there are no practicing dentists, no Federally Qualified Health Centers with dental services, and no Community-Based Dental Clinics.

What’s more, Colorado is one of only 10 states that does not have a dentist in more than 10 percent of its counties. Here in Colorado, access to care is more than just finding the right plan — it is physically getting to a provider. As Governor Polis works to close the coverage gap, it is imperative that we also work to close access gaps caused by dental deserts.

We applaud the governor for prioritizing the issue of health care access in Colorado — but oral health must not be forgotten. We are confident that, when presented with the facts, Colorado’s leaders will make sure that our efforts to improve health care access addresses oral as well as overall health.

Helen Drexler is President and Chief Executive Officer of Delta Dental of Colorado. Joseph Dill is the Head of Dental Science at the Delta Dental Institute and has over 35 years of experience in the dental field.