New program to provide free dental care for older adults in New Hanover County

New Hanover County Commissioners recently approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for a new free dental program for low-income older adults
Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 7:59 AM EST
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Many older adults in the U.S. do not have dental insurance because they lost their benefits upon retirement and Original Medicare does not cover routine dental care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s why New Hanover County Commissioners recently approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for a new free dental program for low-income older adults.

“Medicare, Original Medicare, does not have any type of dental coverage available,” said New Hanover County Senior Resource Center Director Amber Smith “Often times what we’re seeing is older adults stop going to the dentist — even for just primary oral health care, cleanings.”

The new program will be coordinated by New Hanover County Health and Human Services and the Senior Resource Center through a contract with Access Dental Care, a non-profit portable dental provider.

Access Dental Care acts like a mobile practice. It was created by the N.C. Dental Society in 2000 and currently serves 30 counties throughout the state.

This new program will specifically target adults 55 and older who are at or below the 200% poverty level who do not qualify for full Medicaid, which does provide dental insurance coverage. You also must be a New Hanover County resident to qualify.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for us to fill a gap in dental health services for seniors,” said New Hanover County Public Health Director David Howard. “Many seniors who retire do not qualify for full Medicaid to receive dental insurance services — fall through the gap of not having any dental insurance and don’t have the income necessarily to pay out of pocket for dental services.”

Howard estimates there are about 15,000- 20,000 residents in the county right now who would qualify.

Not having dental insurance often results in older adults going without oral care. This can lead to serious health issues that could lead to a visit to the emergency department or primary care physician.

Oral health problems in older adults as a result of not receiving proper dental care can include gum disease, tooth loss and oral cancer. It can also result in poor nutrition because it becomes too painful to chew.

“Often times if somebody is experiencing an oral health issues or type of emergency — their ability even to chew makes it challenging and so we see that there are some nutrition challenges with that individual,” Smith said.

Oral health problems can also really affect someone socially.

“When your dental health issues are compromised, it’s not only a health issue that is hidden — like another chronic disease — from view, sometimes it’s very much on display,” Howard said. “With people’s smile and they start to retract from the social activity and isolate themselves and that’s not healthy either.”

Smith said that this is a resource many older adults have been asking about for quite some time.

“We’ve known that this has been an issue for a lot of older adults,” she said. “We often get calls at the Senior Resource Center of looking for this type of service, so some of the feedback is individuals are really eager to apply for this service and be able to access the service to improve their oral health care.”

They are still in the planning phase right now, but they hope to open up the application process by May. They plan to have the program up and running by July.

New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple has been pushing for a program like this for years. In a December Board of Commissioners meeting, Commissioners approved $149,280 in “startup funds” for the program for fiscal year 2022 and $729,884 in funds for the program for fiscal year 2023.

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