“It feels weird right now, but I’ll get used to it,” she says.
What she’s trying to get used to is the feeling of having teeth.
On the day we met, Stefonik, a mom of three from Mosinee, Wis., got a set of dentures to replace all of her upper teeth, which she lost over many years to disease and decay.
Stefonik is just 31 years old.
She’s one of millions of people who are poor and live in rural America and have little to no access to dental care.
A study by the Federal Reserve found that a quarter of Americans went without dental care they needed in 2014 because they couldn’t afford it.
For those in rural areas, the problem is far worse. A 2015 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that people in rural areas are poorer and less likely to have dental insurance than their urban counterparts. They’re also less likely to have fluoridated water, and more likely to live in an area where dentists are in short supply. Those dentists that are there probably don’t take Medicaid, government health insurance for the poor.
“You’ve got a double whammy if you’re on Medicaid and you’re living in a rural area,” says Jane Koppelman, research director for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ dental campaign.
For years, Stefonik lived in pain from her cracked and decaying teeth. If she got to a dentist at all, they’d usually just pull one tooth and tell her to take better care of the rest.
She was on Medicaid, and in Wisconsin that included dental insurance. Wisconsin’s comprehensive dental benefit is considered one of the best in the nation. According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, four states don’t offer any dental insurance to Medicaid beneficiaries, and another 15 offer only emergency care.
Still, most dentists …