Three Things Oral Health Advocates Are Eyeing After the Election

As the dust begins to settle on a long and tumultuous year — one that has included a global pandemic and a tense presidential election — oral health advocates are looking ahead to 2021 with a sense of cautious optimism.

“We’re at a precipice right now where our efforts can push us forward to legislation that routinely integrates oral health into overall health,” said Ifetayo Johnson, executive director of the Oral Health Progress and Equity Network (OPEN). “Or we can roll back the years of progress and lose our grip on advancing oral health for all.”

Johnson was part of an expert panel that presented on a recent webinar DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement webinar, Take 60: Post-election Update on Oral Health. The webinar brought together more than 200 people from the oral health community to discuss the political issues that could affect access to oral health, as well as opportunities and tactics to advance awareness of critical issues in the coming months. Advocates emphasized that with the pandemic, state budget struggles, and post-election turnover in government, now is a critical time to be talking to decision makers about the importance of oral health.

Here are three pieces of advice the panel of advocates and leaders shared about the post-election political landscape.

1. Keep focusing on Medicaid and Medicare benefits.

Preserving and expanding adult dental benefits continues to be a priority, especially as COVID-19 budget shortfalls in many states have prompted fears around cuts to adult dental benefits in Medicaid.

“Luckily, some states are seeing slightly better outcomes than expected a couple months ago,” said Melissa Burroughs, senior oral health campaign manager for Families USA. “But it’s still a difficult place to be.”

New federal regulations have also created an additional barrier, as adult dental benefits are no longer protected. “Oral health is something that can be easily cut from state budgets, especially the adult dental benefit, and these new regulations now put that even more at risk,” Burroughs said.

Still, there are opportunities for progress in 2021. A COVID-19 relief bill that helps states support Medicaid would lower the risk of cuts to dental benefits. And advocates can work with federal agencies to advance oral health policies, which doesn’t involve legislation.

“Priorities at the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services don’t tend to change a lot across administrations,” said Marcia Brand, senior advisor at DentaQuest Partnership. “So we’re continuing to work with them on Medicaid expansion and opportunities for oral health initiatives in some states around waivers. There are also a number of groups working on expanding Medicare and ‘medically necessary coverage’ to include dental benefits.”

2. Focus on small health legislation changes from a potentially divided Congress.

With the potential of a divided Congress, sweeping legislation to address oral health access is going to be extremely unlikely. However, advocates feel strongly that oral health remains an issue that both parties care about and that this is an important time to continue educating policy makers on the importance of oral health.

“Being able to produce comprehensive bills that we know are going to be needed in the long run is going to take a lot of work,” said Patrick Willard, strategic advisor for DentaQuest Partnership on Oral Health. “So now is the time to reach out and build the coalition.”

Willard cited several existing policy proposals where oral health can be integrated. For example, working to improve oral health coverage for pregnant women through the “Healthy MOMMIES Act” and providing dental benefits to foster kids through a proposed foster care bill. The American Dental Association has also indicated interest in supporting legislation that provides more equitable dental care for seniors including looking at some publicly financed programs.

3. Talk about oral health in the context of legislative priorities.

Advocates also talked about the need to frame conversations about oral health around the issues that legislators are most focused on right now: COVID-19, racial justice and economic recovery.

“We’ve seen, especially over the last several months, that access to oral health is critical to addressing racial injustice and economic recovery from COVID,” said Colin Reusch, senior advisor at Community Catalyst. We also know that cutting adult dental benefits can cost states in unexpected ways and would be devastating for many adults — especially those in the most vulnerable communities.

Communicating the urgency of these issues and providing that context to decision-makers over the next few months, rather than waiting for a new 2021 session, will be critical to advancing oral health for all.

“We must be diligent in our pursuit of equitable policies in health care,” said Johnson. “This is about policies, but most importantly it is about policies that are just.”

To learn more practical tips for how to advocate for oral health benefits, particularly during the transition of power in the coming months, you can watch the webinar and view the slides.