The evidence of growing oral health disparities in the United States is hard to ignore:
- 450,000 children treated at Give Kids A Smile events nationwide last year.
- 2,000+ patients treated for free in less than 48 hours by dentists with the California Dental Association.
- More than $2.6 billion in free and discounted care provided by practicing dentists in the U.S. each year.
The American Dental Association wants to reduce the number of adults and children with untreated dental disease. Volunteer outreach events primarily serve this goal. Some patients travel hundreds of miles and wait for days in line just to get a tooth extracted. Many of these stories go untold, so it is our duty as future practitioners to speak for the underserved and get barriers to care at the forefront of the political agenda.
The ADA started the Action for Dental Health two years ago to combat access to care issues with three goals in mind: to treat patients in need now, to expand the private and public safety net, and to increase education and prevention. With the Action for Dental Health, the ADA seeks to increase awareness of the dental disparities that exist. By publicizing the dental outreach by dentists and organizations across the country, the ADA hopes to gain support for programs to increase outreach and reduce barriers to care.
Potential solutions to dental health disparities exist, but these efforts require state and federal support. Increasing funding for community health centers, obtaining grants for GKAS and MOM events, and raising Medicaid reimbursement require changes in policy to have any efficacy. The Action for Dental Health seeks to demonstrate to the public and to lawmakers that the problem is not a reluctance by dentists to treat at-risk patients, but rather an inability to break through barriers in the current health care system.
How exactly can instances of dental outreach be used as an advocacy tool? One example is the California Dental Association’s volunteer event, CDA Cares. In 2009, adult dental benefits under Medicaid were struck from the California state budget. In 2012, Darrell Steinberg, president pro tempore of the California State Senate, attended a CDA Cares event in Sacramento. Senator Steinberg described what he saw: “I will never forget the sea of people—the endless lines of low-income Californians—some of whom had waited overnight…I saw people who had lost all their teeth because they can’t get preventive dental care”. After bearing witness to the burden of oral disease at CDA Cares, Steinberg led an initiative that ultimately led to the restoration of adult dental benefits under Medicaid.
The ADA’s Action for Dental Health lays the groundwork for dentists and dental students to advocate for improved access to care measures. Many ASDA members may recognize a bill by the same name as this ADA initiative, the Action for Dental Health Act. This bill was a focus of National Dental Student Lobby Day 2015 and remains an important piece of legislation for increasing outreach potential. As written, the bill would allow dental organizations to qualify for grants from the Centers for Disease Control. Access to these grants would help bring efforts like Missions of Mercy and Give Kids a Smile to more populations.
You can make a difference in your local and national dental communities by engaging your legislators and senators. Click here to write to your representatives and encourage them to support the Action for Dental Health Act.
~Matthew Stephens, Los Angeles ’17, District 10-11 legislative coordinator