Dental care is health care. Maine children need access to it.

 Dr. Norma Desjardins has been a general dentist in Presque Isle for 29 years and is the founding executive director of St. Apollonia Dental Clinic, a nonprofit dental center serving children and families in Aroostook County. She is vice president of the Maine Dental Association. Dr. Erica Hidu is a graduate of the Tufts University School of Medicine’s Maine Track Program. She is currently an internal medicine and pediatrics resident physician in Portland and is an active member of the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Most of us don’t consider the effect of oral health on our overall health and well-being — until we have a problem with our oral health. The mouth is the gateway to the body and what happens in our mouth can affect the rest of our body. This can range from people with diabetes struggling to maintain healthy blood sugar levels to infections spreading from the mouth to other parts of the body. As a pediatrician and a dentist, we know the health of the mouth is a key part of overall health; however, getting regular preventive dental care is a challenge for many children in Maine.

 We see children in our offices with dental disease that ranges from one simple cavity to more complex cases of almost every tooth having a cavity. On the other hand, we also see many children who have good oral health — and this is what we want for every child. In order to reach every child early with the services needed to help prevent dental disease, we must bring prevention and oral health education to where the children are.

Brushing, flossing and maintaining tooth friendly nutrition habits at home are certainly an important part of oral health care, but making sure young people can get services like fluoride varnish and sealants from a dental professional also has a major impact. Unfortunately, for too many families, securing time off from work, finding a local dentist to see their children and being able to afford the care their children need are all barriers that prevent children from getting this essential health care.

One important element of the solution is the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s School Oral Health Program, which brings oral health screenings, fluoride varnish and sealants right to students where they already are: in school. These oral health services are well-proven to prevent cavities and help children grow up without dental decay. Unfortunately, the program currently serves only about a third of schools in the state. With limited resources the state has had to limit eligibility to elementary schools with more than 40 percent of their students receiving free and reduced lunch. Nonetheless, there are students at every school in the state who would benefit from receiving these essential services in the school setting.

This year the legislature has the opportunity to expand school oral health services to all students across Maine. LD 1501, An Act to Protect Oral Health for Children in Maine, opens eligibility for the School Oral Health Program so that all schools can participate. The bill would also restore a much-needed oral health coordinator position at the Maine CDC to ensure the program’s effectiveness and data-driven approach, as well as provide public health leadership on oral health issues for all ages in Maine. In 2012, Maine CDC’s Oral Health Program had four staff, but after years of budget and staff cuts, the last remaining position was eliminated seven years ago. Finally, the bill directs the state to begin to explore how to fund these services in a way that maximizes federal Medicaid dollars, which can bring in about $2.50 in federal funds for every $1 the state spends on children’s dental care.

Good oral health is linked to better educational achievements and better employment opportunities as adults. A healthy smile is truly critical to long-term success. As the Legislature considers the governor’s budget, which extends MaineCare’s preventive dental benefits to adults and allows for much-needed rate increases, LD 1501 is a complementary solution to ensure thousands of children in Maine can get the care they need to protect their oral, and overall health.

We encourage the Legislature to support the passage of LD 1501 to help all children in Maine grow up free from preventable dental disease. Oral health is health, and all Maine children deserve the best healthy start we can give them.

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