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Vol. 81/No. 23      June 12, 2017

(front page)

Deep class divide means some pay for brighter teeth, workers lose theirs

The carnage visited on working people by capitalism’s economic and social crisis today includes millions of workers unable to get essential dental work done, given the astronomical costs involved in paying for root canals, crowns or other such procedures. Instead, many end up having their teeth pulled. Nearly 20 percent of those over 65 do not have a single real tooth left.

A product of sharpening class divisions that target working people, this reality is graphically described in “The Painful Truth About Teeth,” an article in the May 13 Washington Post.

High-end cosmetic dentistry is booming, with members of the propertied ruling families and their upper middle class meritocratic backers spending “well over $1 billion each year just to make their teeth a few shades whiter,” the Post said. At the same time, many workers — even those who have full-time jobs — don’t have the money for basic dental care.

Millions of these workers are forced to rely on charity clinics or hospital emergency rooms to deal with infected and painful teeth. Hundreds lined up at one such clinic in Salisbury, Maryland, in mid-May, waiting hours to see volunteer dentists, whose “care” consisted mainly in pulling teeth.

“The country is way too divided between well-off people and people struggling for everything — even to see the dentist,” Dee Matello, 46, who hadn’t seen a dentist in nearly a decade, told the Post. “And the worst part is, I don’t see a bridge to cross over to be one of those rich people.” For years she had been suffering pain from a shattered molar.

Matello — like a number of workers living in industrial and farming areas, many of them Caucasian, had voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 and then Donald Trump in 2016 — in hopes of seeing a change from devastating living and working conditions she faced.

Last year more than 2 million people went to the emergency room because of dental problems. Untreated tooth infections can spread in the body and lead to disease and heart problems. And tooth loss can make it more difficult to eat and speak, not to say of what it does to your appearance and self-confidence.

“What I am seeing is absolutely horrifying,” the Post reported George Acs, director of the dental department at Chesapeake Health Care clinic in Maryland, told the state legislature. ER doctors just pass out “a perpetual cycle of antibiotics and opioids,” he said. And this cycle spreads the opioid addiction epidemic throughout the U.S.

Adding to the scourge of tooth decay is large numbers of workers and farmers in rural areas, and growing numbers in cities as well, who don’t have access to fluoridated water. The chemical fluoride, which reduces tooth decay, began being added to public water systems in the 1940s. Today fluoridated water is available to some three-quarters of the U.S. population. But 80 million people don’t have access to treated water. Some of them draw their water from wells. Others have been seduced by a massive profit-thirsty advertising blitz to use “naturally pure” bottled water — which isn’t fluoridated — instead.

More than one-third of U.S. adults have no dental insurance, according to the American Dental Association. Dental problems aren’t considered medical problems in the U.S., thanks to insurance industry bosses and their muscle with government officials, and aren’t covered by medical insurance. And those workers who are able to get dental coverage face high premiums and limited benefits.

Medicare, which covers 55 million people aged 65 and over and those workers who succeed in running the bureaucratic gauntlet to get disability, doesn’t cover any kind of dental care, even though older workers suffer from the most serious oral health problems.

Some 72 million people have fought their way onto Medicaid, but under this federal program dental care for children is left up to the states. About half of children on Medicaid did not receive a single dental service in 2012.

Less than half of state governments cover dental care for adults who manage to get Medicaid. And only 38 percent of dentists accept Medicaid, the Post said.  
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