Dental benefits are not generally covered by Medicare, except under limited circumstances, and many people on Medicare do not have any dental coverage at all. Some Medicare beneficiaries have access to dental coverage through other sources, such as Medicare Advantage plans, but the scope of dental benefits, when covered, varies widely and is often quite limited, which can result in high out-of-pocket costs among those with serious dental needs or unmet need.

Policymakers are now discussing options to make dental care more affordable by broadening dental coverage for people on Medicare. President Biden’s FY 2022 budget request includes as part of the President’s healthcare agenda “improving access to dental, hearing, and vision coverage in Medicare.” Senate Democrats recently announced an agreement to include Medicare expansions, including dental, vision, and hearing, as part of the budget reconciliation package, though details of the agreement have not yet been released. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R.3) that would add a dental benefit to Medicare Part B, along with a vision and hearing benefit, in addition to provisions to reduce prescription drug costs. Earlier this year, Representative Doggett, joined by 76 members of the House of Representatives, introduced the Medicare Dental, Vision, and Hearing Benefit Act (H.R. 4311) which would cover these benefits under Medicare Part B.

In light of these ongoing policy discussions, this brief provides new data on the share of Medicare beneficiaries with dental coverage, the share with a dental visit in the past 12 months, and out-of-pocket spending on dental care. It also takes a closer look at the scope of dental benefits offered to Medicare Advantage enrollees in individual plans in 2021. We focus on Medicare Advantage plans because they have become the leading source of dental coverage among Medicare beneficiaries. Our analysis draws from multiple datasets, including the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey for information on dental visits and out-of-pocket dental costs and the Medicare Advantage Enrollment and Benefit files for data on individual Medicare Advantage plans. To present a more detailed picture of dental benefits beyond what’s available in these data sets, we examine dental coverage offered by 10 geographically dispersed Medicare Advantage plans offered by different insurers with relatively high enrollment that offer dental benefits (see Methodology and Appendix for more information).

Key Findings

  • Nearly half of Medicare beneficiaries (47%), or 24 million people, do not have dental coverage, as of 2019.
  • Almost half of all Medicare beneficiaries did not have a dental visit within the past year (47%), with higher rates among those who are Black (68%) or Hispanic (61%), have low incomes (73%), or who are in fair or poor health (63%), as of 2018.
  • Average out-of-pocket spending on dental services among Medicare beneficiaries who had any dental service was $874 in 2018. One in five Medicare beneficiaries (20%) who used dental services spent more than $1,000 out-of-pocket on dental care.
  • In 2021, 94% of Medicare Advantage enrollees in individual plans (plans open for general enrollment), or 16.6 million enrollees, are in a plan that offers access to some dental coverage. Among these Medicare Advantage enrollees:
    • Most (86%) of these enrollees are offered both preventive and more extensive dental benefits.
    • More than three in four (78%) Medicare Advantage enrollees offered more extensive coverage are in plans with annual dollar limits on dental coverage, with an average limit of $1,300 in 2021; more than half (59%) of these enrollees are in a plan with a maximum dental benefit of $1,000 or less.
    • Nearly two-thirds of enrollees (64%) with access to preventive benefits, such as oral exams, cleanings, and/or x-rays, pay no cost sharing for these services, though their coverage is typically subject to an annual dollar cap.
    • The most common coinsurance for more extensive dental services, such as fillings, extractions, and root canals, is 50%.
    • About 10% of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries are required to pay a separate premium to access any dental benefits.

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