There’s growing recognition, even among states that provide limited Medicaid benefits, that poor oral health contributes to a broad range of chronic problems, from depression and diabetes to unemployment.
“If you don’t have a good smile, you oftentimes don’t have a job,” said Dr. Lisa Piercey, who leads the Tennessee Department of Health.
More states have added dental benefits to their Medicaid coverage for low-income residents in recent years. Idaho started coverage in 2018 and Delaware began in late 2020. But Tennessee and Alabama don’t provide dental coverage to adults — not even for painful emergencies.
Now Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, who has resisted using federal money for Medicaid coverage under Obamacare, has proposed expanding dental benefits to all adults on Medicaid. The new coverage would extend to more than 600,000 people at roughly $75 million a year, according to Stephen Smith, director of Tennessee’s Medicaid program, known as TennCare.
State lawmakers still have to sign off on the plan, so leaders are pitching the dental coverage as a way to improve overall health and possibly save money from reducing other types of expensive treatment.