California looks to improve oral care access for its youngest residents

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Yoshihide Nomura via Flickr

To help ensure a lifetime of better oral health, experts recommend that babies receive their first dental exam no later than their first birthday.

Such visits serve as an opportunity to provide timely preventive care to small children – and guidance to parents that can help keep their children’s teeth clean and disease-free.

However, it can be challenging to find a dentist willing to see a very young child, as Laurie Udesky reported in a recent story for Kaiser Health News.

One reason is that many dentists do not feel comfortable treating tots.

“People think that children are afraid of dentists, but really it’s that dentists are afraid of children,” dentist Pamela Alston, the dental director of a publicly-funded clinic in California’s Alameda County told Udesky.

Money also is a factor: many dentists do not see a strong financial incentive for seeing infants.

The lack of care can be particularly serious children from low-income families. They already face an elevated risk for disease but often face barriers getting services. Medicaid entitles children to dental care, but many dentists nationwide avoid the program, complaining that reimbursement rates are too low. Denti-Cal, California’s Medicaid dental program is no exception.

“Denti-Cal reimbursements are below the actual costs for many procedures,” California Dental Association spokeswoman Alicia Malaby said in the Kaiser Health News story.

Still, in recognition of the need, Udesky reported that steps are being taken in California to bring more dental care to the state’s youngest residents.

Public health agencies in San Francisco and Alameda counties are launching pilot programs to train more dentists to see small children and to offer oral health education to their parents.

Also, funds from California’s new tobacco tax are being dedicated to improving oral health services for needy children.

“The money will be used to give dentists a 40-percent increase on top of the standard reimbursement for services to Denti-Cal patients, including oral exams of children age 3 and under,” Udesky wrote.

“Alameda County will offer dentists an extra $20, on top of that statewide increase for appointments with Denti-Cal-covered children that include a thorough exam of the baby’s mouth, a fluoride varnish if needed, a talk with parents about prevention and a demonstration of how to brush their baby’s teeth.”

If the outcomes are good, the pilot programs could be replicated throughout the state, Udesky wrote.

Are infants in your state getting the dental care they need?

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