Children's Oral Health Project
First, we collected relevant data and, on June 1, 2012, issued special report on the state of children's oral health. The goal of KIDS COUNT's newest special report, Is West Virginia a Great Place to be a Kid?, is to educate policymakers and the public about the importance of preventive dental care for young children and the policies that promote their oral health.
Second, we have been working with the state's oral health and child advocates in a coordinated effort to improve the dental health of West Virginia's kids. In 2011, West Virginia Kids Count joined the Campaign for Dental Health, a movement to protect children and families from the unnecessary pain and costs associated with tooth decay. This volunteer network of local, state and national organizations provides reliable, scientific information about oral health and community water fluoridation on their Web site, ILikeMyTeeth.org.
And, finally, we will continue to advocate for the changes required to meet all of the Pew criteria for children's oral health and for improvements within each of the baseline criteria.
What precipitated KIDS COUNT's recent work on children's oral health? In February of 2010, the Pew Foundation issued a national report called The Cost of Delay: State Dental Policies Fail One in Five Children. This report identified West Virginia as one of eight states to receive an "F" in its report card of children's oral health. In fact, at the time of the report, West Virginia met just two of the eight benchmarks established by Pew's Children's Dental Campaign.
- West Virginia did not have a dedicated full-time dental staff, a deficiency which prevents the state from qualifying for many federal dental health grants;
- West Virginia did not report oral health data to the national surveillance system;
- West Virginia lacked a school-based sealant program; West Virginia was one of just seven states that continued to require a dentist to be present while a hygienist applies sealants to a child's teeth; West Virginia did not pay dentists at least the national average of Medicaid payments; and
- West Virginia did not reimburse medical providers for preventive dental health services; and West Virginia had not authorized a new primary care dental provider.
The bright spots in the 2010 Pew report were 1) the state does have fluoridated water for 91 percent of its population on community water systems and 2) it exceeds the national average of Medicaid enrolled children receiving dental services (47%.)
In the 2011 Pew report on children's oral health, West Virginia's grade had improved from an "F" to a "C" thanks to a coordinated effort, funded in part by the Benedum Foundation, to implement West Virginia's Oral Health Plan. Click here to download the 2011 West Virginia report card. The primary drivers for the improved grade were improvements in Medicaid payment rates and an increase in the percentage of at-risk schools with sealant programs. And, in January of 2012, Medicaid also began reimbursing physicians for providing preventive oral health services. This change was the result of sustained advocacy on the part of the West Virginia Oral Health Coalition, KIDS COUNT and other advocacy groups that have been working together to improve children's oral health.
Why Children's Oral Health is Important
According Pew, dental health has been improving in the United States, but children have not benefited at the same rates as adults. The proportion of children between 2 and 5 years old with cavities actually increased 15 percent during the past decade, according to a 2007 federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study. The same survey found that poor children continue to suffer the most from dental decay. Kids ages 2 to 11 whose families live below the federal poverty level are twice as likely to have untreated decay as their more affluent peers. Nationally, just 38.1 percent of Medicaid-enrolled children between ages 1 and 18 received any dental care in 2007, the latest year for which data are available. Compare that to the estimated 58 percent of children with private insurance who receive care each year. In West Virginia, 55% of West Virginia's Medicaid-enrolled children receive no dental care.
Pew says the consequences of poor dental health among children are far worse--and longer lasting--than most policy makers and the public realize. Poor dental health negatively effects growth and development, school readiness and performance, overall health and even economic growth.
Pew acknowledges that parental guidance, good hygiene and a proper diet are critical to caring for kids' teeth, but emphasizes the crisis is not only about parenting. Three systemic factors also have played a significant role: 1) too few children have access to proven preventive measures, including sealants and fluoridation; 2) too few dentists are willing to treat Medicaid-enrolled children; and 3) in some communities, there are simply not enough dentists to provide care. Here in West Virginia, 235,000 citizens reside in dental health shortage areas; and half of them are going un-served in terms of preventive dental care.