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Researchers Find Dental Coverage Pays Off In Long Run For Older Americans

October 07, 2017

Older Americans could likely have lower overall dental expenses with preventive dental care and more routine dental visits, as indicated by a new study of public records of Medicare beneficiaries, says John Moeller, PhD, MA, research professor at the University of Maryland Dental School.

Moeller and colleagues in the School's Health Services Research Division conducted a uniquely comprehensive analysis of a sample of 10,582 representatives of the nearly 34 million Medicare beneficiaries in community-based homes.

Private insurance records are generally not available for such a national study, says Moeller. But researchers say the Medicare records are frequently reliable as indicative of national trends.

The Dental School study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that Medicare beneficiaries who used preventive dental care had more dental visits but fewer visits for expensive nonpreventive procedures and lower dental expenses than beneficiaries who saw the dentist only for treatment of oral problems.

"For many retirees, paying for dental care treatment can be difficult," says Moeller. "Without assistance, older Americans who are poorer may choose to delay or forgo dental care, but postponing dental care may lead to expensive complications."

He recommends that adding dental coverage for preventive care to Medicare could pay off in terms of both improving the oral health of the elderly population and limiting the costs of expensive nonpreventive dental care for the dentate beneficiary population.

Moeller and colleagues Haiyan Chen, MD, PhD, research assistant professor, and Richard Manski, DDS, PhD, MBA, professor, conducted the study because younger people have primarily been the focus of previous studies of the impact of preventive dental care visits. "We felt that insufficient attention has been paid to the possibility that preventive dental care may limit expensive nonpreventive dental care procedures among an older population," the team wrote.

To fill the information gap, the team identified characteristics of older adults who used preventive and nonpreventive dental care as well as those who used no dental care at all, using data from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey. MCBS is a continuous, multipurpose survey of a nationally representative sample of aged, disabled, and institutionalized Medicare beneficiaries.

MCBS, sponsored by the Centers for Medicare Medicaid Services, is the only comprehensive source of information on the health status, health care use, health insurance coverage, and socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of the entire spectrum of Medicare beneficiaries.

University of Maryland Baltimore