Guest column: Equitable access to dental careFree Access

February is well-known for Valentine’s Day. Less familiar to many, February is also National Children’s Dental Health Month, which I think deserves a bit of the spotlight. The word “dentist” or phrase “going to the dentist” often receives a response of a cringe followed with fear, opposition and hesitation by adults and children alike.

Regardless of how one feels about going to the dentist, those who’ve ever had a toothache can agree: Toothaches are not only bothersome, but miserable. The culprit of a toothache can be from an infection, exposed nerve endings, cracked teeth, dying roots and/or cavities. Cavities — also known as caries or tooth decay — are the most common chronic disease of childhood, yet cavities are preventable. It might seem logical to respond, “Well, go to the dentist then!” or “Eat less candy.” Routine dental checkups are definitely important but aren’t equally accessible to all; simple carbohydrates like chips, graham crackers and goldfish crackers can also induce the decay process.

Public insurance programs like Medicaid/Medical Assistance provide a dental health safety net for numerous children and adolescents. Unfortunately, many kids don’t receive the dental care they need, as the number of local dental providers accepting Medicaid/Medical Assistance is limited. Children who have poor oral health often miss more school and receive lower grades than children who don’t. As a health educator and coordinator of the child and teen checkups program through public health, I am continually working on finding ways to ensure everyone has equitable access to dental care.

Local schools within Jackson and Cottonwood counties have been champion partners in health by teaming up with C&TC/public health and offering dental varnishing to students twice per school year — free of charge, regardless of insurance provider/coverage. Fluoride varnish is a treatment that can help prevent tooth decay, slow it down or stop it from getting worse. Despite limited staffing in 2023, 406 children received fluoride treatment in the school setting. In 2020 C&TC began and continues collaborating with Children’s Dental Services, a nonprofit dental clinic, to provide regular outreach dental care in Jackson and Windom. CDS sees children, pregnant women and adults of all ages. Services offered include exams, cleanings, X-rays, extractions, fillings, crowns and sealants. CDS accepts all forms of insurance and utilizes a sliding scale fee based on income. The next CDS clinic dates are Tuesday, Feb. 6, in Windom and Wednesday, Feb. 7, in Jackson. Appointments can be made by calling 1-866-543-6009.

Cavities during early childhood can become the beginning of a lifelong struggle with poor oral health. Parental knowledge about oral health is closely tied to a child’s oral health. Sometimes being able to explain things in kid-friendly terms can seem challenging or overwhelming. Fortunately, Jackson and Cottonwood counties have thriving public libraries! Books can be a simple and fun way to help children learn the importance of proper oral hygiene.

Part of my job as a health educator and the C&TC coordinator is to be a resource and contact point for families. Whether it’s questions about insurance, finding a provider, appointments, transportation, car seats, dental health or breastfeeding/lactation, I’m here to help!

(About the author: Angela Naumann is a health educator and child and teen checkups coordinator with Des Moines Valley Health and Human Services-Public Health.)

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