Dental Care Coverage Transitions

This study examines dental insurance transition dynamics in the context of changing employment and retirement status.

Published Online: October 08, 2009
Richard J. Manski, DDS, MBA, PhD; John F. Moeller, PhD; Haiyan Chen, MD, PhD; Patricia A. St Clair, ScB; Jody Schimmel, PhD; Larry S. Magder, MPH, PhD; and John V. Pepper, PhD

Objective: To examine dental insurance transition dynamics in the context of changing employment and retirement status.


Study Design: Data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) were analyzed for individuals 51 years and older between the 2004 and 2006 waves of the HRS.


Methods: The primary focus of the analysis is the relationship between retirement and transitions in dental care coverage. We calculate and present bivariate relationships between dental coverage and retirement status transitions over time and estimate a multivariable model of dental coverage controlling for retirement and other potentially confounding covariates.


Results: Older adults are likely to lose their dental coverage on entering retirement compared with those who remain in the labor force between waves of the HRS. While more than half of those persons in the youngest group (51-64 years) were covered over this entire period, two-thirds of those in the oldest group (≥75 years) were without coverage over the same period. We observe a high percentage of older persons flowing into and out of dental coverage over the period of our study, similar to flows into and out of poverty.


Conclusions: Dental insurance is an important factor in the decision to seek dental care. Yet, no dental coverage is provided by Medicare, which provides medical insurance for almost all Americans 65 years and older. This loss of coverage could lead to distortions in the timing of when to seek care, ultimately leading to worse oral and overall health.


(Am J Manag Care. 2009;15(10):729-735)

Retirement results in a high likelihood of losing dental coverage and in a low likelihood of acquiring coverage.


  • Twice as many older adults who were fully retired were completely without dental coverage compared with older adults who stayed in the labor force.
  • A high percentage of older persons flowed into and out of dental coverage over the period of our study, similar to flows into and out of poverty.


Like other forms of health insurance in the United States, dental coverage is largely provided in an employment-based setting, and having dental coverage has been shown to be an important factor in the decision to seek care.1-3 Furthermore, it has been shown that individuals are likely to delay dental care in anticipation of obtaining coverage and are similarly likely to “stock up” on dental care in anticipation of losing coverage.4 Taken together, this evidence suggests that job changes may lead to distortions in the decision to obtain dental care, as well as in the timing of when such care is received.

Many people know well in advance the time or age at which they plan to retire. Although this change is anticipated, workers covered by a dental benefit program are faced with the loss of dental care coverage on retirement unless offered the opportunity to maintain coverage after employment as a postretirement health benefit (PRHB).5 In recent years, access to a PRHB has declined significantly; 31% of employers offered a PRHB in 2008, down from 66% 20 years earlier.6 Medicare, which provides health insurance coverage to virtually all Americans 65 years and older, generally does not cover dental care, and Medicaid provides only limited coverage in some states to eligible low-income older adults. Therefore, even individuals who have had consistent dental insurance throughout their working lives can maintain health insurance from a PRHB or face the possibility of lacking such coverage after retirement. This explains why approximately 70% of adults 65 years and older lacked private dental coverage in 2004 compared with only 40% of the adult population younger than 65 years.1

The objective of this article is to examine dental insurance transition dynamics in the context of changing employment status among a population nearing retirement. We use data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to assess the characteristics of individuals 51 years and older based on whether they maintained or changed their dental coverage status between the 2004 and 2006 waves of the HRS. This analysis provides a better understanding of who is likely to gain or lose coverage and how that change in coverage relates to the timing of retirement and labor force status changes.


Data Source

The HRS, administered by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, is a longitudinal household survey useful for the study of aging, retirement, and health among older populations in the United States.7 Response rates for the HRS are high; in 2004, the overall response rate for individuals interviewed in previous waves was 95%, while the overall response rate (including first-time sample members) was 88%.

The HRS contains a large battery of questions at the individual and household levels, including information about the following: demographics; income and assets; physical and mental health; cognition, family structure, and social supports; healthcare utilization and costs; health insurance coverage; labor force status and job history; and retirement planning and expectations. The RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California, has created an analytic file of key HRS variables that are consistent across waves of the HRS; those variables are used in this analysis when possible. The HRS identifier variables contained in that file ensure that our analysis across survey waves is based on the same individual in both periods.

Dental Coverage

This analysis focuses on dental insurance coverage reported in the HRS for the 2-year periods before the 2004 and 2006 surveys. We did not include earlier waves of the HRS in our analysis because dental coverage was not measured consistently before the 2004 HRS. Dental coverage in the 2004 HRS and 2006 HRS was identified in 1 of 2 ways: (1) the respondent reported seeing a dentist for dental care during the 2-year period preceding the survey and having expenses at least partially covered by insurance or (2) the respondent reported that he or she did not see a dentist but expected any costs to be covered by insurance if he or she needed to see a dentist. Using the coverage data that were available, we calculated national estimates of the number of individuals 51 years and older covered by dental insurance in both survey periods and those gaining or losing dental coverage between survey periods by retirement status and other characteristics.


Because dental insurance is often tied to one’s employer, understanding how coverage relates to retirement is important. With the increase in a generally healthier older population with a longer life span than previous generations, gradual transitions to retirement have become more common.8 For this reason, we split retirement status into 2 categories of fully retired or partly retired. Survey respondents are designated as fully retired or as partly retired based on employment, labor force, and self-reported retirement status variables in the HRS.7 Individuals designated as fully retired in our study were screened to make certain that they were not self-employed or working for pay. Persons not identified as fully retired who reported being partly retired or who reported retirement and also reported working or looking for work are defined as partly retired. Individuals not classified as fully retired or partly retired are designated as in or not in the labor force. Those classified as in the labor force (1) reported working for pay or (2) had a labor force status of working full-time, working part-time, or unemployed. Those classified as not in the labor force reported being disabled, not in the labor force, or having never been in the labor force.

Statistical Analysis

We estimate a multivariable model of dental coverage controlling for retirement and other potentially confounding covariates. Given the dichotomous dependent variables for dental coverage transitions, we use logistic regression analyses to measure the effect of retirement status between survey periods on dental coverage transitions, while controlling for potential demographic and other confounders.

Previous research2 confirms the correlation of variables such as income and education with dental coverage and forms the basis for inclusion in our models. To omit them could potentially bias our variable estimates of the effect of labor force transitions on dental coverage.

Observations with any missing data were omitted from the regression analysis. The HRS core sample design is a multistage area probability sample of households, so all estimates and statistics were computed taking into account this design using the software packages SUDAAN (release 6.40; Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, NC) and STATA (release 7.0; StataCorp LP, College Station, TX). The 2006 respondent weights in the HRS were used for all estimates. Our study was reviewed by the University of Maryland, Baltimore, institutional review board, and it was determined that the protocol did not require review.



There were 16,408 total participants interviewed in both the 2004 HRS and 2006 HRS, representing 74,308,057 members of the community-based population 51 years and older at the time of the interview. Of these, 58% (n = 9442) of the participants were women. Fourteen percent (n = 2275) of the participants were black non-Hispanic, and 9% (n = 1479) were Hispanic. Twenty-eight percent (n = 4553) of the participants were 75 years or older, 36% (n = 5973) were between 65 and 74 years, and 36% (n = 5882) were between 51 and 64 years.


Dental coverage status and transitions are reported by population characteristics and by retirement transitions in eAppendix A and eAppendix B (available at Table 1 and Table 2 give the unadjusted and adjusted odds ratio estimates of the probability of gaining or losing dental care coverage between the 2004 and 2006 survey periods. Unless otherwise stated, all reported results are significant at P <.05. As summarized in eAppendix A and eAppendix B, 40% of all older adults had dental coverage, and 44% were without dental coverage during both the 2004 and 2006 survey periods. Approximately 17% of 36.2 million older adults with dental coverage in the 2 years before the 2004 survey lost coverage by 2006. Fourteen percent of 38.1 million older adults without coverage during the 2004 survey period acquired coverage by 2006. Our estimate of older persons without dental coverage of slightly more than 50% over this period is lower than other published estimates close to 70% because we include the group aged 51 to 64 years in our sample and exclude persons not surviving both survey periods.1

Coverage Loss

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