You may not think much about oral health beyond your daily brushing and flossing and twice-per-year cleanings. But for many Maine families, especially those who have no dental coverage, there are few options for accessing regular routine preventive dental care. Few oral health care provider offices are accepting new MaineCare patients, and long wait times for acute care can turn a sore tooth into a health emergency.
This is not a new problem, but the pandemic has made a bad situation worse. In 2020, only 40 percent of children with MaineCare had at least one preventive service, such as a cleaning or a sealant. This is a precipitous drop from the year before the pandemic, when only 57 percent of children with MaineCare and 69 percent of children with commercial insurance had at least one preventive claim. This drop in preventative care has consequences, as pediatricians are seeing children with significant and preventable dental disease.
This alarming trend is not just about teeth. Poor oral health is correlated with poor school attendance and performance. Untreated tooth decay also causes infections and pain that can make participation in daily activities like eating, playing and learning difficult.
The situation has not always been so grim. Maine’s dental health program at one time was robust, with an eight-person staff and a comprehensive strategy to address Maine’s oral health needs that included school-based outreach statewide. Over the years, cuts have left no dedicated positions within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the School Oral Health Program now serves only about a third of Maine’s elementary schools. For those who are not lucky enough to attend these schools, the dental safety net is sparse.
Fortunately, we have an opportunity to ensure that children in Maine get the preventive dental care they need to be healthy and successful.
L.D. 1501, An Act to Protect Oral Health for Children in Maine, is legislation that would expand eligibility of the School Oral Health Program to all schools in Maine. Additionally, L.D. 1501 would reestablish the role of state oral health coordinator, a position required for Maine to access additional federal funding to strengthen the state’s oral health system.
These steps toward a coordinated strategy and system could increase efficiency, shore up workforce challenges and streamline access to preventive dental services for the approximately 150,000 children and adolescents who attend public schools in Maine.
Wisely, every member of the Legislature’s bipartisan Health and Human Services Committee voted in support of L.D. 1501 last year, and the House and the Senate voted unanimously to advance the legislation. Unfortunately, no funding has been provided for the bill yet, but lawmakers now have the opportunity to fund the proposal through the supplemental budget process.
This is a smart investment in the health and future of Maine children. For less than $2 per child, this program could increase access to basic dental health care to all Maine’s children. It would also make the state eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal grant funding that we are currently leaving on the table.
With a billion-dollar budget surplus and dental decay rapidly progressing, now is the time to reinstate Maine’s crumbling oral health program. Dental care should not be a luxury, and dental disease is not a rite of passage. We have the tools to prevent disease and stop decay early. We implore Maine’s leaders to do their part and help us build a generation of healthy Maine children.