By Michelle Merriweather, Diane Oakes and Lenny Wilkens
Recently thousands of people were waiting in long lines winding around the Seattle Center. Many arrived in the middle of the night. Sadly, they were not there to attend a sporting event or concert, but instead were waiting for free health care, with dental care the most requested service.
That snapshot provides a glimpse of the huge need for greater access to health care and especially dental care in our community.
Dental care is important because oral health impacts overall health. Scientific research has documented that oral disease is linked to diabetes, heart disease, stroke and complications in pregnancy.
Dental problems are harmful for everyone, but especially for kids who have their whole lives ahead of them. Cavities can make it difficult for children to pay attention in school, eat healthy foods, stay active and get enough sleep. That’s why by age one every child should have an oral health screening by a dentist or physician.
Poor oral health also hurts confidence and can hold people back from getting a good job and performing well at work.
Surveys of Washington residents show that oral health problems occur in all communities and populations but are more common among people of color and those with lower incomes.
For example, recent surveys found that nearly half of the children from low-income families Washington, and 78 percent of adults with lower incomes, do not receive oral health care that they need. They also found that 18 percent of African American children, 19 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native children and 26 percent of Pacific Islander children have untreated tooth decay, compared to 10 percent of Caucasian children.
The connection between oral health and diabetes also is a major issue. In this state, 33 percent of African American seniors self-reported as having diabetes. If you have diabetes you are much more likely to have gum disease, which makes it hard to control blood sugar leading to diabetic complications such as heart disease, stroke, amputation, kidney disease, blindness and even death.
Clearly oral health needs to be a priority. One answer is to expand access to dental services in areas where they are needed most. That’s the driver behind the ongoing effort to develop a new dental clinic for the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic and more than double the number of dental patients Odessa Brown serves each year.
This is important progress, but even more needs to be done. No one should have to suffer with oral disease because it is painful, harmful and almost completely preventable.
In addition to expanded access to services so that people can get regular preventive dental visits, good health habits are essential for good oral health. This includes brushing our teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, flossing daily, drinking lots of water, and avoiding foods and beverages high in sugar and starch.
Depending on income, many people can quality for Apple Health (Medicaid), which covers many dental procedures. But in the last year, only about 40 percent of the 2.1 million people (children and adults) enrolled in Apple Health saw a dentist. Less than one-quarter of adults were able to access dental care, leaving the vast majority to go without essential oral health care or pay out-of-pocket – something that many low-income adults can ill-afford.
The online site https://www.themightymouth.org provides solutions to help people get dental treatment they need, including finding nearby dentists who accept Apple Health insurance.
Policymakers such as our state legislators and local elected officials need to take steps to protect and improve adult Medicaid dental coverage, increase programs that offer sliding scale fee options for people who are uninsured, and enhance screening programs, hygiene services, referral resources and education materials to reach people across the broad spectrum of ages and cultures in our community.
And, all healthcare providers should be aware of the link between oral health and overall health, and take the time to screen and assess patients for their risk of dental disease.
Individually and working together, all of us can help make oral health and the overall health of our community a higher priority.
Michelle Merriweather is President & CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle; Diane Oakes is President & CEO of Arcora Foundation, the foundation of non-profit Delta Dental of Washington; and Lenny Wilkens is Founder of the Lenny Wilkens Foundation and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.