Maine wins top marks in preventive dental care for kids

Posted Jan. 08, 2013, at 7:26 p.m.

Maine was one of five states awarded top marks in a new national report on children’s dental care.

The Pew Center on the States report gave Maine an “A” grade for making dental sealants accessible to low-income children. Dental sealants are clear plastic coatings that are applied to the chewing surfaces of molars.

Only Maine and New Hampshire received the maximum points possible under the report’s grading system. Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Alaska also received “A” grades.

The report found that most states are not doing enough to use sealants, a proven strategy for preventing tooth decay, which is driving up health care costs. The cost of sealants was estimated by the Pew report at one-third the expense of filling a cavity.

Sealants, which protect teeth from decay-causing bacteria, are typically first applied to children’s teeth in the second grade, shortly after permanent molars appear.

Forty percent of states earned a grade of “D” or “F” on Pew’s four benchmarks for preventing dental disease.

The report looked at whether states had sealant programs in “high-need” schools, allowed hygienists to apply sealants in school-based programs without requiring a dentist’s exam, met a national health objective on sealants and collected and reported data regularly about the dental health of schoolchildren.

The Maine Dental Access Coalition, a group of more than 40 organizations that includes dental clinics and municipal public health divisions, credited dentists, hygienists, parents, school officials, community-based programs and the state’s oral health program for Maine’s “A” grade.

The coalition noted that the Pew report did not take into account decreased funding for Maine’s publicly funded school-based oral health program, cuts amounting to at least 40 percent since 2009. The report also did not include the negative effect of low reimbursement rates through MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, on access to sealants, the coalition stated in a press release.

“Preventing decay can have a significant impact on state Medicaid budgets, since nationally children account for roughly one-third of spending on dental services,” the coalition said. “In Maine, MaineCare is the major source of public funding for oral health care, and more money is spent on fixing oral health problems than on preventing them.”

Maine received the top ranking for children’s dental health in both the 2011 and 2012 Pew reports, the Maine Dental Association said Tuesday. Those reports measured broader measures of children’s health while this year’s focused on prevention.

“The 700-plus members of the Maine Dental Association are proud to practice in a state that is recognized for its work to protect our children’s dental health,” Michelle Mazur-Kary, president of the association, said in a press release. “Dental care is a critical component of overall health — the more we take proper care of our children’s teeth, the healthier they will be.”

Even in the five states awarded “A” grades, thousands of children most at risk for tooth decay are not receiving sealants, Pew said in its report.

“We understand that, even with these high marks, there is still work to be done to ensure that more Maine children and adults have access to and utilize quality dental services. And, we are taking steps to do this,” Mazur-Kary said.

The Maine Dental Association has partnered with the Maine Hospital Association and Maine Department of Health and Human Services to establish a program to direct patients in need of dental care away from more expensive emergency rooms and into dental clinics, according to the association’s release.

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