More than a thousand volunteers gathered at Calvin College’s Huizinga Tennis and Track Center in Grand Rapids June 1-2 to provide free dental care for all who attended, regardless of income or residency status.
The bi-annual Mission of Mercy program of the Michigan Dental Association Foundation is a godsend to the thousands of Michiganders who have participated, and who face numerous barriers to receiving preventive and restorative oral health care, the most pressing one of course being financial. Organizers of the event estimate that volunteers provided care valued at $900,000 (6,000 procedures) to approximately 900 patients.
Routine preventive dental care is not expensive, but it can be too much for many disadvantaged people. Low-income families, senior citizens, veterans and other populations might be faced with having to choose between paying the mortgage and paying for a trip to the dentist.
Poor dental health in a child means pain and difficulty learning. In an adult, dental disease and missing teeth mean lost employment opportunities and without a job, addressing problems in the mouth is that much harder.
The best way to end this cycle of dental disease and pain is to catch it early. We can do that by ensuring that dentists and dental hygienists go into our schools once a year to provide preventive screenings to kindergarten students.
A bill I introduced in the House (HB 5241) would add dental screenings to the required health screenings for children entering school for the first time. The state already requires vision and hearing screenings, and that has helped identify children who might otherwise have faced educational obstacles. HB 5241 would add dental screenings because oral pain can have quite a negative impact on learning. The Department of Health and Human Services, working with local public health agencies, would manage the screenings. The House Fiscal Agency estimated implementing this bill would cost no more than $1.8 million annually.
Health care providers support this legislation, and so do public health officials and school administrators. The bill has bipartisan support in the House of Representatives.
Our state has made a lot of progress recently in improving access to oral health care. The expanded Healthy Kids Dental program and the inclusion of dental benefits in the Healthy Michigan Plan are two great advances and my bill would supplement them.
We can do more. Lansing is considering proposals to:
- Use the existing dental workforce more effectively to get care to underserved areas;
- Improve Medicaid dental reimbursement rates; and
- Fund more programs to educate patients and caregivers about maintaining good oral health and hygiene.
It’s important to remember that oral disease is mostly preventable. Further, when compared to the price of neglect, identifying oral disease early or simply preventing it throughout a person’s lifetime are inexpensive. Investments in our state’s oral health would reduce the need for charitable events like the recent Mission of Mercy program. Just as importantly, by reducing disparities, cutting down on health care costs and improving the general quality of life, they would add to the list of reasons for professionals and tradespeople of all ages to move to our state.
I will continue my work on improving access to good oral health care and dental insurance for as long as I serve in Lansing. I hope my colleagues, of both parties, will do the same.