Supervisor Preston Inches S.F. Toward Universal Dental Care

The District 5 supervisor hopes that San Francisco can bring dental coverage into national conversation around health care.

Could dental care for all be next?

Supervisor Dean Preston took initial steps to create a universal dental care proposal on Tuesday, expanding San Francisco’s role in health care.

Preston called for a Budget and Legislative Analyst report at the Board of Supervisors regular Tuesday meeting that would offer models and pathways to providing dental care to all San Franciscans, closing a coverage gap. One-third of adults up to age 64 lack dental benefits while just seven percent are covered through Medicaid, according to a November study by the American Dental Association.

“It really doesn’t make sense when you step back and think about it,” Preston tells SF Weekly. “When you’re walking on the street and you trip and break a bone, most folks will have health coverage for that. But if you break a tooth you don’t.”

Coverage rates are better among children nationally, with ADA reporting 10 percent of minors lacking benefits. But a third of San Francisco Unified School District kindergartners had dental decay, with low-income and children of color being twice as likely to, according to San Francisco Department of Public Health’s 2016-2017 annual report. Children experiencing cavities face a higher risk of dental and other health problems throughout their lifetime.

Plus, Preston says coverage isn’t everything under plans that may still have prohibitive costs for necessary procedures, like installing missing teeth or dental crowns. The District 5 supervisor feels it’s just starting to enter the national conversation around health care and Medicare for All, but that San Francisco shouldn’t wait around.

“In the meantime, it’s a huge issue locally for people who aren’t able to access the care they need,” Preston says. “Even on the aesthetic side, it affects peoples’ ability to get employment. There’s a lot of stigma attached to that.”

His office requested the report on Monday and expects to hold a hearing in the next month or two with the city’s information. He plans to draft legislation after seeing the lay of the land, which could include modeling the city’s health care access program Healthy San Francisco. The program is used by about 13,000 people today and served as a model for Mental Health SF passed in December, seen as an overhaul of the mental health system once funded.

Preston hopes San Francisco taking a step will shift the narrative around including dental benefits in health care, achieved through Medicare for All.

“It’s also a municipal issue,” Preston says. “One possible path is to expand Healthy SF to include dental.”

Author’s note: SF Weekly wants to hear from people who have or continue to use Healthy SF, or otherwise have trouble getting coverage. To share your experience or ask questions about the data journalism project and El Tecolote partnership, email HealthySFproject@gmail.com or text/call 415-295-6603 in English or Spanish.

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