By Laura L. Czelada
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that children miss 52 million hours of school each year because of oral health problems. Missing school negatively impacts student success. The U.S. surgeon general has correctly made children's oral health a top priority.
And so have policymakers in Michigan. Our state's future, and the smiles of many children, will soon be brighter because of a wise investment that Gov. Rick Snyder and members of the Legislature are including in next year's budget.
Sen. John Moolenaar of Midland, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Department of Community Health Subcommittee, and other lawmakers have approved an expansion to the Healthy Kids Dental program.
In May 2000, the Michigan Department of Community Health, in partnership with Delta Dental, initiated a program to help improve the dental health of those in greatest need. With support from the Michigan Dental Association, this public-private partnership became known as Healthy Kids Dental.
Today the program is available to Medicaid-eligible children in 65 Michigan counties and has more than 300,000 enrollees. Nearly 91 percent of dentists who treat children in those counties participate in Healthy Kids.
Healthy Kids' record of success has generated interest across the country. In 2004, the American Dental Association named Michigan's program one of five national models for improving access to dental care for low-income populations.
Studies show that children with Healthy Kids coverage are more likely to receive dental treatment than those with traditional Medicaid dental coverage. In fact, dental visits are 50 percent higher for children who are enrolled in the program. A number of factors contribute to this trend: more dentists in Michigan accept Healthy Kids than regular Medicaid and a larger dental network can cut travel in half for dental appointments. Because the program is administered by a private plan and care is delivered primarily by dentists in private practice, the beneficiaries are connected to the regular system of care and are more likely to find a "dental home."
This is a long-term strategy that makes sense now and saves a lot of dollars in years to come. Numerous studies and research have documented the importance of starting children early in their lives with good dental hygiene and oral care.
Statistics show that the most common chronic childhood disease in America is tooth decay, affecting 50 percent of first graders and 80 percent of 17-year-olds. Early treatment prevents problems affecting a child's health, self-image and overall achievement.
As the school year ends and we tackle summer projects, it's a great time for parents to schedule a dentist appointment for their kids.
When it comes to improving the oral health of Michigan children, state policymakers deserve an 'A' for expanding Healthy Kids Dental. Many more children will soon have access to the dental care that can dramatically improve their quality of life and prevent costly and painful oral health problems in the future.
We should be grateful that Gov. Snyder and state legislators have put our money where our kids' mouths are.
About the author: Laura Czelada is president and chief executive officer of Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, as well as its parent organization. She has an extensive background in finance and business administration. She holds a Bachelor's degree in accounting from Michigan State University.
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