Neglecting oral health could be a costly exercise in denial.

The national debate over health insurance largely overlooked dental coverage. But many of the problems in the health care industry – lack of access, high costs and poor health outcomes – afflict dental coverage, too.

With far fewer Americans having dental than medical insurance, and poor dental health being linked to adverse and potentially deadly consequences, those who forgo dental treatment could find themselves with considerable bills.

Around 40 percent of Americans lacked dental insurance at the end of 2012, according to the National Association of Dental Plans. That’s compared to 12.9 percent without health insurance, according to the latest figures from Gallup. Those lacking coverage are far less likely to see a dentist – both for regular preventive exams and treatment of acute pain and other problems.

Many Americans don’t see the dentist unless something is wrong, and 56 percent of those without dental insurance skip preventive treatment altogether. Their reasons for delaying or forgoing care: high costs and lack of price transparency, according to the 2013 U.S. Survey of Dental Care Affordability and Accessibility. But like forgoing health care, neglecting oral health could be a costly exercise in denial.

Cost of Reactive Care

You could be the most dedicated brusher and flosser and still have dental problems if you go years without seeing a professional. These problems can build up over time and leave you with a dental emergency that will cost you in the long run, experts say.

“I’ve seen patients with excellent home dental care develop severe gum disease because their tartar had built up for years, causing gingivitis and gum disease,” says Dr. Marshall Young, a dentist in Newport Beach, California. “Also, patients that fail to come for regular checkups and cleanings can have decayed teeth that were at one time small, fixable issues.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 27 percent of U.S. adults ages 20 to 44 have untreated cavities. Minor cavities can turn into major problems, and what would have required a filling can eventually require a root canal or extraction. Young says regular exams can uncover small problems before they grow in both size and cost.

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