Letter: Shore up MassHealth funding for treatment of gum disease

Monday, July 9, 2018

To the editor:

Right now our state legislators are deciding if the MassHealth program -- which covers low-income adults, seniors and people with disabilities -- should expand dental care coverage to include periodontal care, which treats gum disease.

As a periodontist practicing in North Andover, I have witnessed firsthand countless patients who have delayed the care they need because MassHealth does not cover gum disease care. By delaying care, patients not only allow the disease to progress and become more difficult to treat, they face a greater likelihood of losing teeth or developing other conditions due to bacteria traveling through the bloodstream.

This, in my experience, means that taxpayers ultimately pay higher health care costs due to short-term MassHealth funding formulas that do not cover periodontal disease. MassHealth patients who do not receive periodontal care and develop related problems will inevitably seek care in emergency departments when an emergent condition arises or seek a higher level of comprehensive oral care in the future.

Periodontal disease refers to any infection of the structures around the teeth. This includes the gums, periodontal ligaments and alveolar bone.

While periodontal disease is irreversible, it is controllable. When gum disease goes untreated, however, it advances and causes damage to the bone tissue surrounding tooth roots. This process is the primary cause of tooth loss, discomfort, loss of biting and chewing strength, gum tissue and bad breath. It can also lead to inflammation in other parts of the body, which occurs because bacteria that cause periodontal infections may travel via the bloodstream to other parts of the body.

Routine periodontal care is a key element of maintaining optimal systemic health. Periodontal maintenance also extends the lifespan of one’s teeth, prevents gum disease, and is the foundation of a healthy, beautiful smile.

This is why covering treatment of periodontal disease is critical to improving the oral and general health of the adult population.

A recent survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that periodontal disease affects nearly half of all Americans over age 30. Further, 70 percent of seniors have a form of periodontal disease.

The CDC found that periodontitis is highest in men, Mexican Americans, adults with less than a high school education, adults below the federal poverty level and current smokers.

For myself and on behalf of the members of the Massachusetts Dental Society, which represents approximately 80 percent of the commonwealth’s dentists, we urge the conference committee currently working on finalizing the state’s budget to prioritize oral health care and reinstate MassHealth coverage for the treatment of periodontal (gum) disease.

Dr. Howard Zolot

President, Massachusetts Dental Society