A record number of Americans are going to emergency rooms for dental treatment, a problem the dental industry says is straining the nation’s health care system and increasing its costs.
Research out Tuesday from the American Dental Association found the number of dental ER visits in the United States jumped from 1.1 million in 2000 to 2.1 million in 2010. And that comes with a big price tag: Those visits cost the health care system up to $2 billion annually.
Most of those patients are young adults, the analysis found. That’s due to decreases in private dental insurance coverage, combined with significant reductions in adult dental Medicaid programs that have hit young adults particularly hard, the nation’s largest dental association said.
Not only do those ER visits strain the system, they do little to actually fix dental problems. For one thing, few hospitals have dentists on staff able to provide comprehensive dental care. That means that in most cases, staffs provide patients with prescriptions for pain or antibiotics for infection, which ease short-term symptoms without solving the long-term underlying dental problem.
“Without further interventions from policy makers, dental ER visits are likely to increase in the future, putting additional strain on the health care system and increasing overall health care costs,” Thomas Wall, a lead author of the briefs, said in a statement.
The analysis also pointed out that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does little to address the issue of rising numbers of ER dental visits because “it does not mandate dental benefits for adults, nor are dental benefits likely to be included in the essential benefit packages in insurance plans sold through most states' exchanges under the law.”
The ADA has been critical of PPACA for its neglect of adult dental care, calling the law “a missed opportunity” that fails to address critical dental issues.
Experts have warned the law could significantly disrupt the dental benefits market if employers drop coverage for their workers or workers opt out of duplicative plans for themselves to pay for their children’s benefits. PPACA mandates dental insurance for children, as its definition of “essential health benefits” encompasses pediatric services, including oral and vision care.
Meanwhile, the ADA is calling on policymakers to look at other ways to improve access to dental care for adults, including programs aimed at diverting dental patients from ERs to community health centers or private dental practices.