On June 1-2, thousands of volunteers will gather at Calvin College’s Huizenga Tennis and Track Center in Grand Rapids to provide free dental care for all residents, regardless of income. This bi-annual Mission of Mercy program of the Michigan Dental Association Foundation is a godsend to the thousands of Michiganders who participate, and who face numerous barriers to receiving preventive and restorative oral health care, the most pressing one being a financial barrier.
On the spectrum of health care costs, routine preventive dental care is not expensive, but given that insurance options are often non-existent or limited for many people, particularly if they are disadvantaged, those costs can be prohibitive. This means that when faced with a choice between buying groceries or paying $180 to visit the dentist, most low-income families opt for the immediate need for food. Not surprisingly, long-term neglect of dental health can lead to a lifetime of pain and missed opportunities.
A good step toward ending this cycle of dental disease and pain is to catch it early by ensuring that kindergarten students have the option to receive preventive screenings from dentists or dental hygienists.
A bill I introduced in the House (HB 5241) would add dental screenings to required health screenings for young children entering school for the first time. The state has required vision and hearing screenings for decades, and that has helped identify children who otherwise would have faced barriers to learning. My bill would prioritize dental screenings on the same level because oral pain can be a great distraction from learning. The Department of Health and Human Services, working with local public health agencies, would manage the screenings.
Dentists, dental hygienists, public health officials, and school administrators all support this legislation, which has bipartisan support in the House of Representatives. The House Fiscal Agency estimated implementing this bill would cost no more than $1.8 million annually.
Our state has made a lot of recent progress in improving access to oral health care through the expansion of the Healthy Kids Dental program in all 83 Michigan counties and the inclusion of dental benefits in the Healthy Michigan Plan. My bill would supplement these advances by identifying tooth decay or other dental issues that could have an impact on a child’s early academic achievement and help establish a path for a lifetime of success.
There are other things we can do to improve dental care access, including using the existing dental workforce more effectively to get care to underserved areas, improving Medicaid dental reimbursement rates, and directing more funds toward educating patients and caregivers about maintaining good oral health and hygiene.
Oral disease is mostly preventable, and identifying it early or simply preventing it throughout a person’s lifetime is inexpensive compared to the costs of neglect. Investments in Michigan’s oral health not only would reduce the need for charitable events like the laudable Mission of Mercy program, but would reduce disparities, cut down on health care costs (imagine no more emergency room visits for tooth pain) and add to the list of reasons for young professionals and tradespeople around the country to move to our state.
I will work on improving access to good oral health care and dental insurance for as long as I serve in Lansing and I hope my colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, will do the same. The residents of our great state will thank us for that.