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Biden’s Election-Year Play to Further Expand Obamacare
The Health 202

Biden’s Election-Year Play to Further Expand Obamacare

The Biden administration wants to make it easier for Americans to get dental care. But don’t try booking an appointment just yet.

A new regulation out this month allows states to include adult dental care as a benefit that health insurers must cover under the Affordable Care Act. Following record ACA enrollment this year, the proposal represents an election-year aspiration for the future of Obamacare: It doesn’t require states to do anything, even as it shows off President Biden’s intention to make the ACA a more robust safety net.

“It’s huge, really significant,” said Colin Reusch, director of policy at Community Catalyst, a health coverage advocacy group. He said the new Biden administration rule represents “one of the first real changes” to coverage provisions of the law since it passed in 2010.

But like so much in health care, expanding access to dental services is a lot more complicated than it sounds.

An estimated 68.5 million U.S. adults lacked dental insurance in 2023, according to the nonprofit CareQuest Institute for Oral Health. That’s more than 2.5 times the roughly 26 million Americans of all ages who lack health insurance.

And millions of Americans lost dental coverage in the past year as part of the Medicaid “unwinding” that dropped low-income people who had been covered by the program during the pandemic.

At the same time, untreated dental disease is estimated to cost the United States more than $45 billion in lost productivity annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it’s linked to a long list of even more serious health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.

Still, efforts to expand U.S. dental coverage have long foundered on the shoals of cost. When people have dental insurance, they tend to use it. So including the coverage in a health insurance policy can raise overall premiums.

That’s one reason traditional Medicare coverage explicitly excludes most dental care. (Many private Medicare Advantage plans offer some dental coverage as an enticement for seniors to join.)

An effort to add a dental benefit to Medicare was stripped from Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislation before it was passed in 2022 as the Inflation Reduction Act. Instead, the administration clarified and expanded the limited circumstances in which Medicare can cover dental care. Any progress on oral health — including giving states the option to require coverage for adults — is seen by advocates as a victory. Dental coverage for children is already an essential benefit under the ACA.

But whether they actually get coverage depends on states affirmatively adding dental benefits to benchmark plans in the ACA’s insurance marketplaces. Those plans not only determine what services Affordable Care Act insurance has to cover, but also set parameters for state-employee and many private-employer health plans.

Reusch said a few states are considering the change, but it will be a while until anything is certain. States have until May 2025 to decide whether to add dental care to benchmark ACA plans; the benefit wouldn’t be effective until the 2027 plan year.

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