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HERB BENHAM: Hoping for a reason to smile

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Dental care is not a right but many seniors — including columnist Herb Benham — would love to have it rolled into Medicare.

If you were like me, when there was a piece about Medicare, you'd turn the page and put as much reading distance between it and you. Medicare was a foreign country you hadn't been to and had no intention of visiting. Medicare was for the older and less-agile set.

Then it happens. The days fly by and the nights aren't going slow either and one day articles about Medicare have the allure of a close pennant race in September of whose highlights and box scores you can't get enough.

My columns normally focus on how to make a good piña colada, my favorite female singer of the week or having mud fights with grandchildren on the beach.

However, I have teeth. One less now since I had a lower left molar extracted recently, but teeth.

I like having teeth, which ties into my burgeoning interest in keeping them now that Congress is considering adding dental care to Medicare as part of the infrastructure bill that focuses on the human side.

Medicare is great. (There is a sentence I never thought I'd write; you may substitute the word "sex" if that makes it more readable.) Almost everybody I know who is in its gentle embrace thinks so, too. Nothing is perfect, but what's wrong with choosing your own doctors, going any time you want and seeing specialists? Medicare has been a revelation.

The drawback is that dental care is not included. You are flying naked when it comes to your beloved teeth, which means you're paying cash or paying for dental insurance.

Many dentists are not thrilled about the prospect of folding dental care into Medicare and it's easy to understand why. They went to school, studied hard and spent a bunch of money on their dental education, and they are not in a hurry to take a pay cut.

No sane person wants to earn less, and working in close quarters inside of somebody's mouth is an exacting and challenging profession and should be compensated.

Might there be a way for people on Medicare — me for example— to pay more to bridge the difference between what dentists were making and what they might, if dental care was covered under Medicare? I'd pay more because I like having teeth even if they are light brown and not standing as tall as they used to.

People could use the help, which is not to say that dental care is a right because that sounds pretty entitled. However, it is a kindness for the mature among us. Nearly half of Americans 65 and over didn't visit a dentist in the last year, and almost 1 in 5 have lost all their natural teeth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I don't mean to give a two-bit lecture here, but dental health is connected to overall well-being. Dental problems, which include inflammation and bacteria, can worsen other chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Missing or sore teeth can make it hard to eat a healthy diet unless it's gruel, oatmeal or pudding.

If we could figure out how to compensate dentists, adding their services to Medicare might be a huge plus. That would be something to smile about, but you knew that was coming.

Contact The Californian’s Herb Benham at 661-395-7279 or hbenham@bakersfield.com. His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.