by Lynn Doan, Strategic Engagement Fellow

February has been National Children’s Dental Health Month, a month designed to promote the dental health of children across the nation and a fitting time to discuss access to oral health care.

Cavities are nearly preventable, yet 40% of Colorado kindergartners experience cavities and Colorado kids miss about 78 million hours of school every year due to mouth pain. Oral health problems can profoundly affect a child’s health and well-being including their ability to learn, grow, speak and socialize. Tooth decay is the number one chronic health problem among children, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the major successes of the Affordable Care Act is that pediatric dental benefits are now one of the ten essential health benefits that all individual and small group insurance plans must provide. These dental plans must cover access to basic preventative services, such as oral exams, cleanings, sealants and minor and major restorative services, such as fillings and crowns. In addition, families now have access to dental insurance through the public marketplaces. In Colorado, nearly 25,000 individuals enrolled in dental plans through Connect for Health Colorado for 2015. 

While expanded dental coverage is great news, access to dental services is still a challenge. Parents who cannot afford to miss work find it difficult to schedule visits to the dentists for themselves and their children. Even after seeing a dentist, financial barriers can prevent families from accessing major and often more costly dental procedures. Dental insurance can have limits such as annual dollar maximums at about $1,500 a year, leaving patients responsible for paying any costs that exceed that amount. In addition, poor oral health literacy can leave individuals without understanding the importance of oral health care or their options.

In order to increase access to oral health care, collaboration between health advocates, schools and health care providers is necessary. Currently, Colorado is making great strides to increase access, for example meeting the children where they are at – medical offices and public schools.

Our state-based program, Cavity Free at Three, aims to prevent oral disease in young children and pregnant woman by engaging and educating primary care physicians and public health practitioners. Integrating simple preventative dental services in a medical setting can improve access to dental care for children by meeting them at their medical homes.

In addition, our school-based oral health programs are especially effective for at-risk children by delivering the care to them at public schools. Other strategies, such as community water fluoridation are being used through out Colorado to prevent dental disease for populations without dental insurance and without access to regular dental care. Those are few of many great accomplishments in Colorado to increase access to oral health care to children.

Although great strides have been made, there is still a lot we can do to keep Colorado moving in the right direction. Let’s continue to work together towards oral and general health beyond the month of February.

To learn more about how to achieve optimal oral health for all Coloradans, visit Oral Health Colorado here, and learn more about their Smart Mouths Smart Kids toolkit to help establish preventive oral health programs in schools here.

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