Press Release: Coalition Launches Statewide Initiative to Expand Access to Oral Health Care in Vermont

Tens of thousands of Vermonters report inability to access routine or preventive dental care

Vermont Oral Health Care for All Coalition announced today that it has formed to help expand access to badly needed dental care for Vermonters across the state. Voices for Vermont’s Children and the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security are leading the effort to build a consumer voice and raise public awareness of the need for better access to affordable oral health care.

The Coalition is part of a larger movement nationwide to expand access to needed dental care. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced today that it will support efforts in five states – Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Vermont and Washington – to pursue an innovative dental provider model that can expand access to dental care by adding a dental therapist to the team. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, alongside its national lead grantee, Community Catalyst, is supporting these efforts.

The health of our teeth and gums goes beyond just having a great smile.  Our mouths are unique organs, responsible for a range of essential functions: breathing, digesting, speaking, and sensing.  When our mouths aren’t healthy, we aren’t healthy. Poor dental health in children can lead to far more serious health problems later in life. A growing body of research suggests that dental disease is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke.  But despite the fact that oral health is central to overall health, tens of thousands of Vermonters do not have access to preventive or routine dental care.

“Although Vermont has historically had a strong commitment to ensuring access to health care, every year too many Vermonters go without dental care,” says Carlen Finn of Voices for Vermont’s Children.  “Lack of access to good, affordable dental care is a long-neglected health care concern – and we know Vermonters’ overall health is suffering as a result.

High cost and limited access to dentists are the main reasons why people do not visit a dentist. In 2009, more than 62,000 Vermonters – both insured and uninsured – reported not getting dental care because they could not afford it.  Also, while children experience better access than their peers in other states, a Pew Foundation Report found that 43% of Medicaid-enrolled children (nearly 24,000) had not received dental care in 2007.

Insurance, both public and private, often covers care from your ears, nose, and throat, down to your feet.  Yet somehow, the mouth has been left out of the equation. “Affordable dental care is a major health care issue in Vermont,” Coalition member, Trinka Kerr from the Office of Health Care Ombudsman reports. “We frequently hear from health care consumers who tell us they have not been able to see a dentist, and now are in pain and have an emergency situation.  Many do not have insurance that covers dental care.  Or if they have insurance, it is inadequate. They often put off dental care until it becomes a major problem because they couldn’t afford preventive care.”

Despite several programs targeting access to oral health care in the state, such as Tooth Tutor and the Vermont Ronald McDonald House Charities van, no system exists to provide Vermonters with comprehensive care.  “At the Vermont Technical College School of Dental Hygiene, we see patients every day who cannot find a dentist to treat them or cannot afford the dental care they require,” says Sheila Bannister of the Vermont Dental Hygienists’ Association, and Coalition member.  “It is heartbreaking and frustrating to watch them leave at the end of their dental hygiene appointment knowing our hands are tied when it comes to getting them the restorative care they so desperately need.”

The current dental care workforce cannot meet Vermonters oral health care needs. There are currently not enough dentists in Vermont and many are aging. According to a recent dentist survey, over 45 percent of Vermont dentists plan to retire in the next five to ten years. Additionally, some of Vermont’s health clinics with dental services cannot take new patients despite the need.

The good news is that a statewide coalition has formed to provide a voice for access to affordable oral health care.  The Vermont Oral Health Care for All Coalition is made up of 38 organizations that represent the diverse needs of citizens throughout the state.  With the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation the coalition will work to expand access to oral health care for thousands of un-served and underserved children and adults.  An important part of the Coalition’s efforts to expand access will be the introduction of a new professional to the dental team called a dental therapist.  The dental therapist model is a proven method of increasing access while providing safe, competent and effective preventative and restorative dental care.  A convening will be held on December 2nd in Montpelier.

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