HHS targets oral care gaps in ‘health infrastructure’ awards

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: Travis Wise via Flickr

More than $85 million in new federal awards will help health care centers from Aniak, Alaska, to Miami Gardens, Fla., increase access to dental care in their communities.

The awards of up to $300,000 each will enable 298 federally funded clinics to start or expand oral health care services. The money will be used to buy and install dental and X-ray equipment, train staff, renovate facilities and purchase mobile dental units.

Since the first community clinics were established more than 50 years ago to bring primary and preventive care to vulnerable and underserved patients, the system has grown to serve more than 25 million Americans.

But in the long history of support for the clinics by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), its Oral Health Infrastructure Awards for fiscal 2019 are unique in their focus, according to federal officials.

“These are the first awards HRSA has ever made solely for health centers’ oral healthcare infrastructure, and they will support better access to oral health services in communities across the country, including underserved urban and rural areas,” noted HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a Sept. 19 statement announcing the funding.

“Health centers play a key role in providing access to a comprehensive range of services Americans need to stay healthy, and that includes high-quality oral health care,” Azar said.

In the American health care system, dental care has historically been provided separately from medical care. But in response to a growing recognition of the value of “whole patient care,” and with support from the Affordable Care Act, health centers have taken the lead in integrating dental care into the comprehensive primary care services that they provide to communities.

In 2018, more than 6.4 million dental patients received care in HRSA-funded health centers, a 13 percent increase from 2016, according to federal figures.

Yet even amid such gains, community health centers have faced challenges, including staffing shortages and financial uncertainties in recent years, the Commonwealth Fund noted in an August report.

Did a clinic in your state or community receive an FY2019 Oral Health Infrastructure award? Check this link to find out.

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