Dental Help for Low-Income People

Helping low-income people find dental care is often overlooked in the debate about improving America's health care system. Most low-income assistance programs focus on children, who can get help through state Medicaid programs. Resources are more limited for adults, who must either find a dental school, volunteer for a clinical trial or hope that their state or local health department can refer them to a program in their area.

  1. Significance

    • More than 100 million Americans lack dental insurance, according to an October 2007 article in The New York Times. This figure also includes many working adults. Yet many dentists will not accept patients on Medicaid--the federal government's health care program for the poor--due to its low reimbursement rates. Even public clinics that accept Medicaid patients impose long waiting lists for their services.

    Children's Health Insurance Program

    • Nearly 12 million children nationwide lack access to dental care, the University of Michigan Health System reported in February 2009. When lack of insurance enters the equation, 40 percent of children do not see a dentist regularly. The Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) helps low-income people through age 19 who lack insurance. In most cases, CHIP will provide medical coverage--and dental care--to children who meet its income and eligibility guidelines.

    Clinical Trials

    • Volunteers can participate in federally funded clinical trials through the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), which is one of the U.S. government's National Institutes of Health. The NIDCR does not provide financial help for dental care. However, participants with specific craniofacial, dental and oral problems can obtain limited fee or low-cost dental treatment for the condition being studied.

    Dental Schools

    • For adults, dental schools can provide discounted, or even free care. Dental hygienists perform teeth cleaning and oral examinations, while second- through fourth-year students handling the more complicated tasks, according to the Dental Clinic Manager website. However, due to shortages of practicing dentists, long waits are common. Low-income children using the pediatric clinic at the University of Florida's dental clinic must wait an average of six months, for example.

    Other Resources

    • Low-income adults can get help through state Medicaid programs, which set their own eligibility rules. Some programs do offer comprehensive services, with most limited to emergency dental care, says the NIDCR. Medicare, which is for people over 65 and persons with disabilities, does not cover dentures or dental care. If no other help is available, state and local health departments can provide information about dental assistance programs for low-income residents.


    • For people without coverage, the situation is unlikely to improve in the short run, The New York Times stated. With fewer dentists in training than a generation ago, the average dentist's age is now 49. Yet industry groups like the American Dental Association have fought proposals to allow hygienists and other non-dental personnel to provide care for people who cannot get it. The association responds that such proposals would lower the quality of care.

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