Dental spending exceeds pre-pandemic levels in 2021

Data point to patients' return, government relief

U.S. dental spending or expenditures 2021 infographic American Dental Association Health Policy Institute

Growth: Dental spending by government programs grew faster than out-of-pocket and private health insurance spending between 2020 and 2021.

Dental spending in 2021 was higher than in pre-pandemic years as patients returned to their dental offices and the federal government provided funding relief to health care providers.

"Patients were flocking back to the dentist as we started getting back to normal preventive health care routines and providers adapted to new clinical protocols," said Marko Vujicic, Ph.D., ADA Health Policy Institute chief economist and vice president. "But just as important, the federal government provided significant funding to the sector in the form of the Provider Relief Fund and the Paycheck Protection Program that clearly provided a financial stimulus."

National dental spending increased by 11% from $146 billion in 2020 to $162 billion in 2021, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and U.S. Census Bureau. Spending totaled $152 billion in 2019.

"These data show that in 2021, it was full steam ahead for the dental economy," Dr. Vujicic said.

Funding from COVID-19 government relief programs to the dental sector totaled $7 billion in 2021, but even without these programs, HPI estimates that 2021 national dental spending would have been $155 billion, still above pre-pandemic levels.

Dental spending by government programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, increased by 25% from 2020 to 2021. Within these programs, Medicare and Medicaid spending each increased by about $2 billion.

Private health insurance spending was up by 11%, and out-of-pocket spending increased by 13%.

"One important thing to point out is how fast public spending on dental care grew," Dr. Vujicic said. "This was already a trend pre-pandemic, but it really accelerated. Public programs now make up 15% of total dental spending. Interestingly, dental spending in Medicare grew just as much as in Medicaid in dollar terms. Public spending grew much faster than out-of-pocket dental spending and private insurance spending."

Newer HPI data suggest national dental spending grew more slowly in 2022 as pent-up demand disappeared and staffing shortages limited capacity.

"Looking ahead, this time next year, we expect more modest growth," Dr. Vujicic said.