Most of us don’t consider the effect of oral health on our overall health and well-being — until we have a problem.
The mouth is the gateway to the body, and what happens in our mouth can affect the rest of our body. This can range from dental infections spreading from the mouth to other parts of the body, to the connections between gum disease and blood sugar levels or blood pressure.
Several decades spent serving as a primary care doctor have provided plenty of evidence that access to dental care is a key part of overall health. As chair of the Maine Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, it is now even more clear to me, and to the committee as a whole, that getting regular preventive dental care remains a huge challenge for far too many children in Maine.
The pandemic has made many aspects of life harder than they used to be; accessing dental care is no exception. Even before COVID-19 hit Maine, there were many barriers that kept children from getting basic dental care. In fact, in 2019 Maine ranked 49th among states, surpassing only North Dakota, on federally required reporting on the percentage of children with Medicaid receiving dental services.
One important element of the solution to this problem is the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s School Oral Health Program. It brings oral health screenings, fluoride varnish and sealants right to students where they already are: in school. These oral health services are well-proven to prevent cavities and help children grow up without dental decay.
Delivering services in schools removes the barriers that keep children from getting to a dental office for a checkup. Unfortunately, the program currently lacks the resources to serve all schools in the state. Eligibility to participate is limited to elementary schools where more than 40% of their students qualify for free or reduced lunch. However, there are students at every school in the state who need these essential oral health services in the school setting.
This year the Legislature has the opportunity to expand school oral health services to all students across Maine. LD 1501, “An Act to Protect Oral Health for Children in Maine,” opens eligibility for the School Oral Health Program so that all schools can participate.
The bill restores a much-needed oral health coordinator position at the Maine CDC to ensure the program’s effectiveness and a data-driven approach. This coordinator will provide public health leadership on oral health issues for all ages in Maine and secure federal grant funding that we are currently missing out on due to the lack of staff capacity.
Finally, to build a path for sustainable funding for the school program, the bill directs the state to begin to explore how to fund these services in a way that maximizes Medicaid dollars, which can bring in about $2.50 in federal funds for every $1 the state spends on children’s dental care.
Good oral health is linked to better educational achievements and better employment opportunities as adults. The military knows this all too well, as dental problems are one of the leading health issues that make personnel non-deployable. A healthy mouth is truly critical to long-term success.
As the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee considers the governor’s supplemental budget, I am proud that the Health and Human Services Committee has unanimously voted to support the addition of funding for LD 1501. This is a cost-effective bipartisan solution that will help thousands of children, here in our districts and across our state, get the preventive care they need.
Oral health is health, and all Maine children deserve the best healthy start we can give them.
Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, is serving his second term in the Maine Senate, representing Auburn, Mechanic Falls, Minot, New Gloucester and Poland. He co-chairs the Health and Human Services committee and serves on the State and Local Government Committee.