TAMPA — Like the cavalry, the Greater Tampa Bay Oral Health Coalition rode into town Thursday morning in two mobile dental clinics, on a mission to rescue the molars of second graders.
The coalition announced a partnership with Oral Health America’s Smiles Across America campaign and a deal with 16 Hillsborough County elementary schools to provide limited dental service, mainly to include sealing young teeth against decay.
A recent study showed Florida to be dead last in taking care of the dental health of children not covered under private dental plans and who can’t afford a trip to the dentist.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts study, Florida joined four other states earning “Fs” on the state of oral hygiene care for disadvantaged youth. The grading was based on eight benchmarks, including public schools offering dental programs to seal the teeth of children and paying Medicaid dentists equal to or more than the national average.
“The Pew report hits us big with, ‘You are not even recognizing the need,” said Kim Herremans, local coalition president.
The coalition recently got the approval of the school board to begin servicing the chosen elementary schools, providing teeth-sealing procedures to second graders. The procedure virtually seals the tooth against tooth decay, said Herremans. Without the treatment, half of second graders will get tooth decay, she said, and if left untreated, 80 percent of teenagers will develop cavities in unsealed teeth.
She described her organization as a grass roots effort that now includes more than 60 members from all walks of life with a common goal of improving dental care for children, particularly children of poor families.
“We are 100 percent volunteer,” Herremans said. “Everyone here has a full-time job elsewhere.”
The partnership with Oral Health America will open the door to grant money, she said. The coalition will use elaborate RVs tricked out with dental chairs and spit basins that will visit schools, she said.
“Few underprivileged children receive good dental services,” Herremans said, a fact prominent in the Pew report. Tooth decay in children can be detrimental not only to their health, but to their education, she said.
Millions of school hours are missed each year because of tooth aches, she said, and since 2006, emergency rooms have seen a marked increase of patients complaining of tooth-related problems.
Frank Catalanotto, vice chairman on the Oral Health America board of directors, said good oral hygiene at a young age can save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in the long run. He cited recent studies that showed Florida emergency rooms average 115,000 visits a year from patients complaining of dental issues at a cost of $88 million.
“This is a waste of money,” he said, and much of the problem can be avoided by sealing the teeth of children.
Catalanotto, who also is a professor of dentistry at the University of Florida, said Hillsborough County emergency rooms annually treat about 6,700 people — 1,100 of them children — for tooth emergencies, at a cost of about $5.3 million.
He also said Florida pays dentists treating Medicaid patients far less than the national average, with the result that few dentists sign up to treat underprivileged patients. The Pew report said only 15 percent of dentists in Florida accept Medicaid.
The Pew report lambasted Florida for its lack of programs but, the study concluded, dental care for needy children across the nation is lacking.
“Each year in the United States, tens of millions of children, disproportionately low income, go without seeing a dentist,” said the report’s summary. “This lack of access to dental care is a complex problem fueled by a number of factors, with dentist shortages compounding the issue.”
According to the study, privately insured children “were almost 30 percent more likely to receive dental care than those who were publicly insured through Medicaid or other government programs, despite the fact that low-income children are almost twice as likely as their wealthier peers to develop cavities.”
In 22 states, less than half of Medicaid-enrolled children received dental care in 2011 and in Florida, 75.5 percent of children receiving Medicaid did not go to a dentist that year.