New oral health coalition expected to spur changes in state

By Tara Kaprowy
Kentucky Health News

For the past 30 years, Dr. Fred Howard of Harlan has been seating patients in his blue dental chair and telling them to open up. When they do, he’s seen all kinds of scenarios, from toddlers whose teeth are already rotten from sucking on bottle filled with soft drinks to 20-year-old adults with no teeth at all. On some occasions, children walk in with such a severe abscess in their mouth their eyes are swollen shut.

Though the view can be grim, Howard said he has seen some improvements in his decades of practice, but with new changes in Medicaid managed care, the overwhelming prevalence of children and teens drinking soda pop and an embedded cultural belief in some areas that “teeth are just something to get rid of,” Howard concedes that making headway can feel like one step forward and two steps back.

Enter the newly re-established Kentucky Oral Health Coalition, a statewide force whose goal is to ensure Kentuckians have happy, healthy smiles.

Dozens of organizers and stakeholders met in March to discuss the coalition’s aims, and a membership drive is underway to build financial momentum. The coalition will promote oral health education, statewide partnerships statewide and advocate oral-health legislation. “I think they will turn into the advocacy group for dental change,” said Dr. Julie McKee, dental director for the state Department of Public Health. “They’re working hard to come up with a plan. They’ve got their heads on straight.”
One of the major issues facing the dental profession is possible expansion of the scope of practice for mid-level providers, such as dental therapists who can assess, clean teeth, replace sealants, provide fluoride as well as fill cavities and extract teeth. As nurse practitioners do in the medical field, having such providers could help address shortages in rural areas, said Dr. Jim Cecil, former state dental director and coalition steering committee chair. The concept is in practice in 54 other countries, but the only U.S. states with it are Minnesota and Alaska, mainly because of opposition form dentists.
Andrea Plummer, coalition member and senior policy analyst for Kentucky Youth Advocates, acknowledged that scope-of-practice issues “can be a very tense subject” and “there would have to be buy-in” from members of the committee, who include dentists, but discussion is ongoing. Cecil said the issue is “something we’ll need to look at and take a stand on eventually.”

Howard (pictured with Gov. Steve Beshear at signing of the bill that requires dental exams for students starting school) favors the expansion, but doesn’t feel Kentucky’s oral-health problems can be solved just by putting more boots on the ground.

“The bottom line is: We can have twice as many dentists, have more dental hygienists, but if we don’t change the mindset, if we don’t provide the education, I don’t think we’re going to solve the problem,” he said.

To that end, the coalition is also investigating ways to expand school-based health and dental education, either by finding funding, collaborating with groups that are already in place or advocating legislation changes, Plummer said.

A recently enacted state law requires children to get a dental screening before entering kindergarten, but there is little else in the way of legislation that requires schools to offer services to help students with dental problems, Plummer said. “Kentucky law says that students’ health does affect their learning and schools should take steps to affect their learning but it’s fairly broad,” she said.

An analysis by KYA last year showed school districts spend less than 1 percent of their budgets on school health services.
Examining how to get more dentists to accept Medicaid patients is another hot-button issue. Of about 2,200 dentists statewide, only about 600 are enrolled in Medicaid, Cecil said, and “They feel like they’re working for free” because of the program’s low reimbursements. “In many cases, they’re really not meeting overhead.”

The administrative burden that comes with these patients has also gotten worse since Medicaid transitioned to managed care, Cecil said. “Everything they do has to be pre-authorized,” he said. “That delays approval, delays treatment, delays payment.”

Under managed care, Howard said, patients now need to come in twice to get a full complement of X-rays and radiographs done, which can not only make it hard on dental practices, but for patients as well. “The more times they have to come, that gives them more opportunities to miss appointments,” Howard said.

The Oral Health Coalition also sees a need for “quality, updated data,” Plummer said. Getting data was one of the successes of the first coalition, formed in 1990. Run by volunteers and funded by the dental schools at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, it was formed after the General Assembly told the schools that they either needed to work together or one could “risk being shut down,” Plummer said. The group had several successes, including working with the state to conduct an oral health survey, lobbying legislators for oral-health measures and holding an annual symposium. But after more than 15 years, “It kind of just fizzled out a little bit,” Plummer said. The group went inactive in 2006 but had some assets that the new group will take over.
The group’s rebirth began in 2009, when Kentucky Youth Advocates was approached by the DentaQuest Foundation, which is connected to DentaQuest, one of the largest managed-care organizations in the country that administers dental benefits. DentaQuest officials were interested in seeing the coalition resurrected and offered $80,000 to KYA so it could provide the manpower to run it, Plummer said. It was the first time the coalition had funding to back it up. The KYA talked to state stakeholders and discovered “there really did seem to be an interest in putting a coalition back together,” Plummer said. Planning began in earnest and in January the steering committee drafted by-laws. In March, 70 people showed up to the first meeting.

That gathering was not just made up of dentists, oral-health advocates and experts, Howard said. Members of the media were present, along with parents, health department officials, school nurses, students and educators. That made all the difference to Howard, who said he is inspired by what changes might occur and what education can take place. “When we have people from all these different venues, we have more of an opportunity to make a difference,” he said.

The coalition’s next meeting will be July 25. Those interested in attending or becoming members of the coalition can contact Andrea Plummer at or 502-895-8167. Dues for individual members are $25. Government organizations pay $100, nonprofit organizations pay $250 and for-profit organizations pay $500.

Kentucky Health News is a service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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