OUR OPINION: For children, the gift of a healthy smileChildren’s dental health is a serious issue that responds well to policy change. If lawmakers want to find an issue that lends itself to bipartisan compromise, this is one.
By: Tom Dennis for the Herald, Grand Forks Herald
Given the gridlock that prompted a state government shutdown last year, Minnesotans can’t be blamed for thinking the state’s trendsetting days are done.
But in a recent report about a pressing (and depressing) social problem, only six states got A’s — and Minnesota is one:
“Minnesota is a national leader, meeting six of eight policy benchmarks aimed at addressing children’s dental health needs,” the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign reports.
That’s great news — and meaningful news as well, as you’ll see the minute you think about the life-changing importance of a child’s dental health.
The Pew campaign gives out the grades to raise awareness of the stubborn but not impossible problem of children’s dental health. (North Dakota got a B.)
Here’s the “stubborn” part:
Nationwide, fewer than half of children enrolled in Medicaid — the health insurance program for the poor — get any dental care at all. And that’s not just the parents’ fault: “Only about 20 percent of the nation’s dentists provide care to people with Medicaid, and, of those who do, only a small percentage devote a substantial part of their practice to serving those who are poor, chronically ill or living in rural communities,” a recent U.S. Senate report declared.
Moreover, even children from more affluent families are turning up with toothaches, face pain and a startling number of cavities. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted an increase, the first in 40 years, in the number of preschoolers with cavities in a study five years ago,” The New York Times reported earlier this week.
“But dentists nationwide say they are seeing more preschoolers at all income levels with 6 to 10 cavities or more. The level of decay, they added, is so severe that they often recommend using general anesthesia because young children are unlikely to sit through such extensive procedures while they are awake.”
Partly as a result, a half-million children in California alone missed at least one day of school in 2009 because of oral health problems. And among adults as well as children, “more Americans are turning to the emergency room for routine dental problems — a choice that often costs 10 times more than preventive care and offers far fewer treatment options than a dentist’s office,” USA Today reported last month.
So: Stubborn, yes. But not impossible. The Pew project targets four key areas: Fluoridated water; expanded sealant programs; boosting the number of professionals who’ll provide dental care to low-income children and improving Medicaid’s effectiveness.
That last item can involve raising payments for dental providers. But regular professional teeth cleaning ranks among the least expensive and most cost-effective of all medical procedures. It’s nowhere near a budget buster, while it can do a world of good.
Minnesota, for its part, has focused on Item 3: boosting the number of professionals. In 2009, the state passed a pioneering law that approves the licensing of dental therapists — “the dental equivalent of a nurse practitioner,” Pew notes.
Since then, “two Minnesota universities have developed a curriculum to train the new dental providers,” and each graduated a dozen new providers in 2011.
“It’s estimated that each dental therapist could serve at least 2,000 patients per year,” Pew reports.
The bottom line is this: Children’s dental health is a serious issue that responds well to policy change. If lawmakers want to find an issue that lends itself to bipartisan compromise, this is one.
— Tom Dennis for the Herald