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Huge cavity in dental care for older Americans

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A new report reveals a huge cavity in dental care. Fewer than half of older Americans had visited a dentist in the previous year.

Dental care can take a big bite out of a senior's wallet. Bill Austin pays out of pocket, but knows that others can't.

"A lot of them on fixed income and just can't afford to do it," Austin said.

Eighty-eight percent of seniors don't have dental insurance, according to the new report in the journal Health Affairs. It found those who do have coverage are either still working or have generous retiree benefits. Medicare doesn't cover dental. The authors point to the lack of insurance as the main factor in fewer than half of older Americans seeing a dentist in the previous year.

"They can delay receiving care over time and then that just builds up to where the problems they have are much more serious, much more costly to take care of," said Dr. Marsha Pyle, dean of the UMKC School of Dentistry.

She added that oral health can affect the rest of the body.

"For example, nursing home patients who don't have clean mouths are much higher risk for pneumonia."

The authors of the report propose that dental care be embedded in Medicare or that a benefit be added that's similar to the one for prescription drugs. But their proposals wouldn't come cheap, costing the federal government between $4 and $16 billion annually. The authors add that it's hard to tell in the current political climate whether the issue will be addressed by lawmakers.

In the mean time, Dr. Pyle says seniors having trouble affording dental care should look to safety net clinics where you pay based upon income.
In addition, UMKC has a clinic that has lower fees than private practices.

"I took this avenue because -- save it for the kids," Austin said.

He says he got a denture and other work for two-thirds less than he would have paid at a private practice.