In Search of Dental Care

Jun 25, 2013

In Search of Dental Care examines the lack of access to dental care, especially for low-income children and families, in the United States.

It also explores the strategies states are employing — particularly the expansion of the dental team by licensing additional types of providers — to address workforce shortages and serve low-income children.


Each year in the United States, tens of millions of children, disproportionately low income, go without seeing a dentist. This lack of access to dental care is a complex problem fueled by a number of factors, with two different dentist shortages compounding the issue:

  • An uneven distribution of dentists nationwide means many parts of the country do not have an adequate supply of these practitioners. As a result, access to care is constrained for people in these communities regardless of income or insurance coverage.
  • The relatively small number of dentists who participate in Medicaid means that many low-income people are not receiving dental care.

National standards set by dental and pediatric organizations call for children to visit a dentist every six months. The federal government requires state Medicaid programs to enact their own standards after consulting with these organizations, but new data show that more than 14 million children enrolled in Medicaid did not receive any dental service in 2011.

According to the most recent comparison in 2010, privately insured children were almost 30 percent more likely to receive dental care than those who were publicly insured through Medicaid or other government programs, despite the fact that low-income children are almost twice as likely as their wealthier peers to develop cavities.

In 22 states, less than half of Medicaid-enrolled children received dental care in 2011.

In 2012, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President George H.W. Bush, said, “In a nation obsessed with high-tech medicine, people are not getting preventive care for something as simple as tooth decay.” He pointed to the inadequate dental workforce as a driving factor, stating, “The shortage of dental care is going to get only worse.”

View the infographic: In Search of Dental Care