Dr. Myechia Minter-Jordan is President and CEO of the DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement, a Boston-based nonprofit organization focused on reforming the broken health system and enabling better oral health for all. She is the former CEO of the Dimock Center.
As a country, we are waking up daily to the avoidable loss of Black life. We know some of their names, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But many more we sadly know only as numbers and statistics, reported as part of the daily coronavirus public health updates.
What they have in common is their cause of death: systemic racism.
The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the inequities in health care in Michigan and across the country that existed well before the pandemic. We know this not only from the powerful experiences of Black and Brown people, we know it because we can see it in the data.
According to Michigan’s Coronavirus Task Force on racial disparities, while African Americans account for 14 percent of the state’s population, they make up 40 percent of COVID-19 related deaths.
No wonder cities across Michigan, from Port Huron to Lansing, from Jackson to Flint all have declared racism a public health crisis.
Lack of economic opportunity, lack of affordable housing and healthy food options, lack of access to health insurance, lack of quality affordable care, lack of representation in the medical field, implicit bias and stereotyping, all contribute to a system that does not adequately value Black lives.
These inequities have created a disparity so great that the average life expectancy of a Black man in Michigan is 10 years less than that of a white neighbor.
We need fundamental reforms in our health care system to fix these deep inequities. Yet there is one aspect of health care that is overlooked as a key component of that work — oral health.
Poor oral health has a direct link to higher risks of chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and more. It leads to greater instances of depression and other mental health diseases.
So yes, increasing access to preventive oral health care must be part of any solution to the racial disparities in this country. We have a long way to go.
Recent research from DentaQuest showed that more than 74 million Americans lack access to dental coverage — four times the number of people who are medically uninsured. More than 45 million Americans live in areas without an inadequate number of dentists. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this gap in access disproportionately harms poor, Black, and Brown Americans.
- Americans in poverty are 2.5 times more likely to have an unmet dental need due to lack of insurance.
- Black adults are 68 percent more likely to have an unmet dental need than white adults.
- Latino adults are 52 percent more likely than white adults to report having difficulty performing at work due to poor oral health.
- Nearly 4 in 10 Black and Latino adults reside in the 14 states where Medicaid’s adult dental benefits cover no services or emergency-only care.
This has significant economic impacts as well. Due to a lack of access to preventive care and a reliance on emergency care, low-income adults spend 10 times more of their annual family income on dental services than high-income families.
Fortunately, there is one thing Michigan can do now to address these racial disparities – protect and expand adult dental benefits in its Medicaid program.
Michigan covers only limited dental benefits for low-income adults enrolled in the Medicaid program– and today, those benefits are at risk due to budget pressures. More than 1 million Michiganders — a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Brown — risk losing access to the same preventive oral health care as those who have private dental insurance. Michigan’s 2020 State Oral Health Plan calls for expanding access to oral health services for low-income, not reducing it. Protecting oral health coverage is a no-brainer. Further limiting access to oral health services will exacerbate existing disparities.
There are other things we can do as well. We need a revolution in patient care – integrating medical, dental, and behavioral health. We must better leverage technology, like telemedicine, as not just a crisis tool but a long-term solution to increase access and reduce costs. And we also must empower patients, continuing to educate people about the direct link between good oral health and good physical health.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Of all the forms of inequity, injustice in health care is the most inhumane.”
He was right. We must be outraged and motivated to end the racial disparities in our health care system. As we emerge from this pandemic, we have an opportunity – and a moral imperative – to do just that.
Black lives depend on it.