Democrats weigh vouchers for Medicare dental benefits amid funding squeeze

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Congressional Democrats looking to cut at least a trillion dollars from their social spending package are considering converting one of the most expensive health care pieces — dental benefits for millions of seniors on Medicare — into a cheaper voucher program.

The idea came up during a meeting Tuesday between House progressives and President Joe Biden, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who participated in the meeting, told POLITICO.

An aide for another member who was at the meeting said Biden floated the idea “as a way to get the program going sooner,” adding it would function like a flexible spending account.

The White House did not respond to questions about the prospective voucher.

Background: Democrats have made adding benefits for dental, vision and hearing care to Medicare a central component of the social spending bill. Previously, they only discussed vouchers as a bridge to help seniors in the years it might take to create a full dental benefit, which wouldn't be established until 2028 in the House version of the bill.

For now, vision and hearing coverage — which is far less expensive than dental — will remain in the bill as full benefits rather than vouchers.

What they're saying: House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) stressed to reporters Wednesday that nothing has been finalized, saying: “The goal is still to have coverage for all three programs in an effective way.”

Dingell, who said she herself “almost died" from a dental-related health issue earlier this year, criticized the voucher idea.

“I could go on at length about the crisis we have in dental care in this country, so I think an $800 voucher isn’t going to cut it,” she said, citing the annual amount under discussion. “A dentist told me last week that when their patients are nearing retirement, they tell them to put aside at least $30,000 just to take care of their teeth — that’s how expensive it is. People don’t realize that.”

Dingell acknowledged that progressives may have to accept a voucher system as an alternative to losing the dental benefit altogether, saying it would "keep moving the ball forward."

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