Dental disease is the most common chronic childhood illness and dental pain is one of the top reasons children miss school. With cost-effective oral health services, dental disease is also a largely preventable illness. Unfortunately, according to recent claims data, 60% of children insured with MaineCare and 40% of children with commercial dental insurance did not receive preventive dental services in 2020.
L.D. 1501, An Act to Protect Oral Health for Children in Maine, is a bill that passed last year after receiving unanimous support in the Health and Human Services Committee. It calls for expanding school oral health services to offer core preventive services for all public schools and for restoring the position of a State Oral Health Coordinator at the Maine Centers for Disease Control. Both of these actions are critical first steps needed to address the Maine’s current oral health crisis.
The Maine Oral Health Centers Alliance is a network of the five large stand-alone non-profit dental centers throughout the state who are mission-driven to provide access to oral health care to all Mainers. We know good oral health is a critical component of good overall health. We also believe in the right to good oral health for all people in Maine, whether you have MaineCare or need to pay out of pocket on a limited income, live in a rural part of the state, speak another language, or have disabilities that make getting oral health care difficult.
Many of our patients have struggled to secure dental care in the past. When they come to us, their disease has often progressed and requires extensive and expensive treatment. We are happy to serve them but it is heart-breaking how much of our effort is spent providing treatment that could have been largely avoided if good preventive care had been available sooner.
Our dental centers play a critical role in ensuring that no one is left behind when they need dental care, but our dental centers alone cannot provide the entire solution to this problem. Having good oral health requires early access to care as a child. That requires coordinated, community-based resources that ensure all Maine children have access to basic oral health services.
The funding of L.D. 1501 will extend the School Oral Health Program to offer core preventive services for children in all public schools. School-based care offers an accessible, community-centered means of providing preventive services that can reduce the burden of dental illness in Maine’s children. Unfortunately, because of a lack of resources, more than 400 of Maine’s over 600 schools are currently not served by Maine CDC’s School Oral Health Program. This means that too many children are going without critical preventive services.
In addition, Maine’s ability to address systemic oral health challenges has been weakened by reduced funding for public health, including the loss of funding for the oral health coordinator position at the Maine CDC about eight years ago. The funding of L.D. 1501 would restore this position, which is critical to address the bigger challenges facing dental care in the state.
This coordinator position would provide leadership on issues such as increasing access to dental services for children and adults, addressing workforce shortages, and increasing Maine’s capacity to take advantage of federal funding opportunities that the state has been unable to pursue without this position. This state leadership is essential to build a system of care that helps ensure that all people in Maine can grow up with good oral health.
Our dental centers are on the front lines of providing essential health care, yet no matter how many people we treat in our offices, dental disease in our state persists. Without action we can expect it to get worse based on the pandemic’s impact on access to care in the last several years. It is important to get ahead of this curve by bringing services to where the children already are and committing ourselves to a statewide vision of ensuring that all people in Maine can get dental care when they need it – including regular preventive care from the beginning and over the entire lifespan. We urge legislators to fully fund LD 1501.
All Maine people deserve oral health care so they can stay healthy, be free from pain, and show up at school and at work ready to succeed.
Barbara Covey, M.D., is president of the board of directors at Waterville Community Dental Center and a representative of the Maine Oral Health Centers Alliance.