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PA Lags on Children’s Preventive Dental Care in School-Based Programs--Says Study

A new report from the Pew Center on the States says most states, including Pennsylvania, lag on dental sealants that can be a key factor in preventing tooth decay in children.

Pennsylvania received a "D." ThePew study graded states on these benchmarks: having sealant programs in high-need schools; allowing hygienists to place sealants in school-based programs without requiring a dentist’s exam; collecting data regularly about the dental health of school-children and submitting it to a national oral health database and meeting a national health objective on sealants.

“For several decades now we’ve known that sealants prevent tooth decay and we also for several decades have had experience reaching the most high-risk children with school-based programs,” said Bill Maas policy advisor for the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign.

The report "Falling Short: Most States Lag on Dental Sealants" was published today.

20 states and Washington, D.C. received a "D" or "F" while five states were awarded an "A."   Maine and New Hampshire scored the highest point totals possible.

Federal officials had set a goal for public health known as Healthy People 2010.  The goals included applying seals to the molars of at least 50 percent of children. Pennsylvania was behind on that goal.

Public health advocates and medical studies cite dental care as one of the greatest unmet health needs among U.S. children, especially from low-income families who are more likely than their middle-class and wealthy counterparts to experience cavities and tooth decay. In addition to the health aspects of this, there is also an economic aspect--much of the care for low-income children is publicly-subsidized.

More than 15 million Medicaid-enrolled children did not see a dentist in 2010. Maas says this initiative is a way for states who have had Medicaid-funding problems such as Pennsylvania can still increase the public-health status of its young citizens.

“Regardless of how well the Medicaid program is working this is a public health strategy reaching the same children and relying on the Medicaid program to sustain the program. So they do work hand in hand,” said Maas.

Pennsylvania did do a state survey and used to submit it to a national oral health database – but that information hasn’t been collected in years.

“Those data are not recent, they are older than five years old; which is the standard that the CDC and Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors has said if its older than five years old than its really not very useful in making current policy. So in that regard, Pennsylvania has gone backwards,” he said.

Maas also says Pennsylvania has few restrictions on dental hygienists in the schools.

“The rules are set for a good program and yet we have learned that less than 25 percent of the schools that have high concentration of low-income children are receiving this service.”

The Pew study recommends dental sealants, clear plastic coatings that are applied to the chewing surface of molars and help prevent cavities. They are typically applied when children’s permanent teeth come in and are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In previous years, the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign has released reports grading the states on the state of Children’s Dental Health and Emergency Room Treatment Numbers for Dental Needs in Children. Pennsylvania did not fair well in either of those reports.