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Expanding Access to Dental Care

State Sen. Ray Cleary, a South Carolina Republican, has proposed S.286 to create a free dental screening program for schoolchildren in at least 3 of the state's poorest counties - where children are most likely to go without regular dental care. Sen. Cleary, a dentist himself, wants to combat the adverse effects that poor dental health has on a child's education, including the inability to focus while in school because of pain and missed school days. According to the Pew Center on the States, tooth decay is the most common childhood disease, affecting 60% of all children and causing kids across the country to miss 51 million hours of school time each year.

Sen. Cleary's bill would require dental screening in schools in kindergarten, third, seventh, and tenth grades (or whenever a student first enrolls). A coordinator would line up dental visits, help eligible children enroll in Medicaid or SCHIP, and provide transportation to appointments if needed.

Elsewhere, in Maine, primary care doctors are learning basic dental care to help address a severe and worsening dentist shortage in the state. As the New York Times reports, Maine has one dentist for every 2,300 people, compared with the national average of one dentist per 1,600 people. Maine is a predominantly rural state and this program helps to create a dental safety net for the state's rural poor who often don't have the means to travel distances for dental care or the necessary education to better care for their own teeth. The program, which is not statewide, is currently run out of two medical centers.

The American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics announced a similar program in 2008 to train pediatricians in basic dental care in several states, including Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, and Washington.

Resources

Pew Center on the States - Children's Dental Health