Many dental problems are preventable, yet they are among the most common chronic conditions for children and among the top reasons kids go to the emergency room or miss school.
Dental care is available through private insurance and the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid, however many parents do not know their children qualify or how to get help.
Based on community health needs assessments, The Oregon Community Foundation provided a five-year, $300,000 grant to Providence Seaside Hospital for school-based outreach to improve access.
Under the Healthy Smiles program, hundreds of students each school year receive dental screenings, as well as sealants through the Oregon Health Authority and information on how to navigate dental care.
The next school year will be the last one covered by grant money, but Providence Seaside intends to continue the program.
Justin Abbott, the Providence Healthy Smiles coordinator, works with schools to coordinate care days and helps families understand the often-complicated insurance that covers dental care.
“I’m Justin’s biggest fan. He has done so much for our students and parents,” said Tobi Boyd, the Seaside School District’s health specialist. “He is the bridge that is able to fill those gaps and make it possible.
“Dental problems affect your whole body health and so it’s incredibly important. It’s probably one of the most important things to make sure our kids have healthy teeth.”
When screenings reveal students have a more serious dental problem or pain, Abbott said some parents don’t know how to get their child the care they need.
“We go through the next steps with them,” he said. “Is it trying to set them up with insurance? Is it getting them actually to the dentist? What can we do to help them get to the dentist?”
Molly Yeend, the strategic projects coordinator for the Oregon Community Foundation, said Healthy Smiles has found children who may have never been to a dentist before.
”(Abbott) is going in and helping to educate the kids so it kind of helps eliminate the fears that they might have about going to the dentist and understanding the importance of taking care of their teeth,” she said.
Healthy Smiles guides parents and their children toward available dentists. However, children covered by the Oregon Health Plan have to see dentists in Astoria, since there are no dentists in South County who accept the state’s insurance.
There are also no pediatric dentists in Clatsop County, which creates a barrier for care if a child needs extensive work, or just can’t be treated because they’re too afraid and fidgety. The closest pediatric dentists that take the Oregon Health Plan are in St. Helens and the Portland area.
“The issue is there’s just not enough dental providers who will take OHP to see these folks who are either low income or no income,” said Michael McNickle, the county’s public health director.
McNickle and Abbott said transportation is also a major obstacle for low-income families in South County or rural areas who want to take their children to a dentist.
“Sometimes that’s a huge barrier parents have to overcome is the distance that people have to travel, because if you’re out in Jewell you have to come to Astoria for dental care and sometimes parents have to take entire days off work just to make that appointment.
“Then usually, I know when I go to the dentist, you go for the cleaning and then you have to go back, so that’s like two days off work. So if you do that twice a year then that’s four days off work just taking your kids to the dentist if they’re having any sort of problems at all.”
Healthy Smiles also partners with the Oregon Health Authority, the local coordinated care organization, local dentists and others every year to provide a screening and services day at Lum’s Auto Center in Warrenton.
McNickle said if children get access to dental care through programs like Healthy Smiles, they likely will not have as many dental issues when they get older.
“I think that what we’ll see in the future, that the number of cavities and orthodontic issues and all those kind of things will go down. It’s going to take some time, though,” he said. “I sure am glad Providence has taken that on. I think that’s a marvelous program.”