The health and well-being of children is one of the few issues a majority of Americans readily support without much argument. It’s an issue that rises above the usual disagreements of those from opposing political parties, or from widely divergent backgrounds. We have, as a nation historically, fought for the health and safety of the youngest, voiceless, and powerless among us.
From the child labor laws of the 1900s that kept children out of dangerous factories, to the immunization efforts that have all but eradicated once-deadly childhood illnesses, and the insurance programs that ensure coverage for those who might otherwise go without, we have, as a society, put a great deal of muscle behind the issues that keep our kids safe.
Even with all of this progress, one crucial area where we are failing our children remains: dental health care.
Minor as it may sound in the grand scheme, poor oral health care among children is a growing epidemic that not only affects their teeth, but also their intellectual and social development, and overall health. According to a report by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), tooth decay in young children can lead to malnutrition, life-threatening infections, poor school performance, and reluctance to speak, smile and play.
By the age of five, about 60 percent of U.S. children will have tooth decay. Despite the AAPD’s recommendation that all children have their first dental exam no later than their first birthday, the reality is that only one in four parents surveyed actually took their children for a dental visit in the first year.
The reasons behind this void in important children’s health care are varied. Lack of education certainly plays a role. Research indicates that parents — particularly in low-income families — fail to understand the importance of oral health in children and how diet and brushing contributes to it. Lack of insurance coverage for children’s dental care is also notable, although the Affordable Care Act (ACA) makes pediatric dental coverage an essential health benefit available through the state insurance exchanges. This coverage, however, is often optional and the number of children gaining dental coverage is still uncertain.
Yet even with the ACA’s expanded coverage potential, roadblocks remain. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), approximately 80 percent of dentists do not accept patients with Medicaid, or state Children’s Health Insurance Plans (CHIP), citing, among other reasons, low reimbursement for their services.
This month, National Children’s Dental Health Month, provides a timely opportunity to reflect on where we can continue to make improvements for the sake of all our children. Continued progress can be made under ACA in the state and federal exchange to provide affordable options to parents who recognize that oral health is a vital component of a child’s overall health.
In the interim, dental providers should do all they can to provide care to children who might otherwise not have access to dental care. For example, my Kool Smiles practices and more than a hundred others nationwide, have focused our efforts in underserved communities that have historically lacked sufficient providers for the Medicaid patient population. We not only welcome children and families in need of otherwise unattainable dental care, but we partner with communities and educators to increase awareness about health dental habits and maintaining good oral health care for life.
Our nation’s long-standing commitment to the health of our children is an ongoing effort, and one that must never fade from our attention. I hope that this month – and year round – dental providers, policymakers, parents and the public can encourage and support improvements that ensure our children’s healthy, happy smiles for generations to come.
Paul O. Walker, DDS, is the vice president of clinical quality at Kool Smiles, which provides dental services to underserved communities. He is a board-certified pediatric dentist.