updated 11/13/2003 5:43:24 PM ET 2003-11-13T22:43:24

The elderly receive inadequate oral health care, leaving them susceptible to more serious diseases, a health advocacy group said in a report released Monday.

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The report from Oral Health America graded states on the extent older Americans are covered by both private insurers and Medicaid, giving the nation an overall “D” for the lack of benefits available while failing fourteen states and the District of Columbia.

“Poor oral health care causes millions of vulnerable seniors to suffer needlessly,” said Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, the senior Democrat on the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

With private dental coverage often ending at retirement, and Medicare generally not including dental services, most older Americans pay out-of-pocket for their oral health care. Many low-income elderly depend on Medicaid, but the scope of services has declined with recent state budget shortfalls.

Only eight states currently provide full Medicaid dental benefits to adults, and nine states have no such coverage, said Conan Davis, chief dental officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The problem is compounded by too few properly trained professionals in geriatric dental care, and by the difficulty of finding a dentist who accepts lower Medicaid payments, said Robert Klaus, president of Oral Health America.

Despite the states’ cash crunch, advocates are pushing for Medicaid dental coverage to at least be extended to the aged, blind and disabled, which Oral Health America estimated would cost around $1 billion.

Surgeon General Richard Carmona suggests people can prevent dental problems by flossing daily or abstaining from tobacco, and that health professionals should be trained to conduct oral screenings as part of routine physical exams.

Both health officials and advocates said poor dental care increases the risks of misdiagnosis or mistreatment of other diseases, or of missing them altogether.

“The mouth and face can be likened to a crystal ball, predicting diseases and conditions yet to come” such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer, said Daniel Perry, executive director for the Alliance for Aging Research.

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