DENTAL CARE: Many California Children Suffer from Untreated Tooth Decay
California children suffer from untreated tooth decay at twice the rate of kids nationwide, according to two new reports released this week by the U.S. Surgeon General, the California Children's Dental Health Initiative and the Dental Health Foundation. The reports reveal that more than half of California children in kindergarten through third grades had untreated dental disease. About 27% of children ages 2 to 5 lacked proper dental care. Among minority children, the picture is even more grim: 40% of preschoolers and 75% of elementary schoolchildren went without dental care. In total, more than 25% of preschool and elementary children and more than 40% of high school students had no dental insurance (Alameda Times-Star, 5/25). Health officials attributed this "hidden epidemic" to nonfluoridated water in some areas and "a shortage of dentists willing to treat poor children" (Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/25). According to the state report, children living in communities without fluoridated water faced tooth decay at rates 36% to 54% higher than other kids. Although a 1995 state law mandated fluoridation in all public water systems that have at least 10,000 connections, Los Angeles and Sacramento are the only large cities to undertake the project. Expanding fluoridation to other heavily populated areas would cost close to $180 million, Dr. David Nelson of the state DHS' Office of Oral Health said (Alameda Times-Star, 5/25). Although the state offers coverage through Denti-Cal, many dentists refuse to participate because of low reimbursements and frequent denials of claims. Cheri Pies, director of Contra Costa County's Family, Maternal and Child Health Program, said, "It would be nice if there were more dentists who are wiling to take low-income kids. But dental care should be funded at the same level of regular (health) care, so that dentists don't feel like they have to volunteer their time" (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/25). Advocates recommended that the state help pay for the cost of fluoridation in some communities, and also expand Healthy Families dental coverage to include children who have medical insurance through their parents' employers, but no dental coverage (Griffith, Sacramento Bee, 5/25). The report also suggests augmenting programs that allow dentists and hygienists to travel to schools and requiring insurance companies to cover some preventive services (Alameda Times-Star, 5/25). Dr. Jared Fine, president of the Children's Dental Health Initiative, said, "Dental disease is somewhat accepted as normal. But ... it is affecting countless millions of California children unnecessarily. It can be prevented" (Sacramento Bee, 5/25).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.