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Senate hearing, Pew report focus on nation’s oral health problems

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. – Awareness of the nation’s oral health care access crisis and its impact on children and families is growing, as reflected in two noteworthy developments this week. 

On Feb. 29, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, convened the second in a series of hearings on the need to improve access to oral health care.  According to a new report released at the hearing, some 17 million children from low-income families go without seeing a dentist each year, and only 45 percent of Americans ages 2 and older have seen a dental provider in the past 12 months.  The report calls for expanding the dental care workforce, including exploring the introduction of mid-level dental providers like dental therapists.

Earlier in the week, the Pew Center on the States issued a report, A Costly Dental Destination, which shows that increasing numbers of Americans are turning to costly emergency room (ER) care for preventable dental problems. The report estimates that 830,590 ER visits were made across the country in 2009 because of preventable dental problems.  In Washington state, for example, dental problems accounted for more than 23,000 ER visits and $12 million in costs over an 18-month period.  The tab for those visits falls largely on Medicaid and other public programs.

Mid-level dental practitioners, who have been working in Alaska for six years and are just entering the workforce in Minnesota, can help expand oral health care access, providing preventive and routine dental care to children and families who aren’t getting it.  By focusing on prevention, mid-level practitioners can catch dental disease early – and keep it from growing more serious, more painful, and more costly to treat.  More children and families will get the everyday dental care they need to maintain good oral health.

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