Michigan’s children are suffering a dental crisis.
To help address the crisis, Public Sector Consultants is helping the dental insurance provider Delta Dental to develop a campaign called the Brighter Futures initiative.
The problem is stark. More than a quarter of the state’s third-grade children, 27.1 percent, now struggle with untreated dental disease, according to a 2011-12 “Count Your Smiles” report by the Michigan Department of Community Health
That number rises to an alarming 41.9 percent for third-graders in Detroit.
Youth in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Peninsula also suffer from high rates of untreated decay and oral health issues. Hispanic, African-American, and Arab-American children are disproportionately affected by these problems, according to the study, as are kids from lower-income families in parts of the state.
“We’re very concerned,” says MDCH Oral Health Director Christine Farrell, “because, not only here, but nationally, dental decay is actually a more prevalent problem than asthma in children.”
Farrell also notes that Michigan falls below the national average for the utilization of pediatric oral health services by children enrolled in Medicaid. In a 2013 federal report on quality of care for kids enrolled in Medicaid, Michigan ranked in the lowest quartile of states for both children receiving dental treatment and children receiving preventative dental services.
The consequences of not addressing these issues can be severe. Bill Piskorowski, assistant dean for community-based dental education at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, warns that a lack of adequate dental care can lead to such problems as the expansion of cavities, infections and misalignment of teeth that can make biting more difficult.
“Head and neck infections are a real possibility, as is pain management and loss of time at school. There have been situations where children have actually had to be hospitalized,” he says. “Children should not be in pain and should be able to go to school and do their daily functions without having to be in pain management.”
Nationwide, children miss 51 million hours of school each year as a result of dental-related problems, according to a 2000 U.S. Health and Human Services report. PSC researchers concluded in “A United Voice for Oral Health” that oral disease can affect “children’s ability to concentrate and learn; their speech development; and their self-esteem.”
To address this sobering reality and improve the oral health of the state’s children and adults, Delta Dental of Michigan earmarked $1 million to launch the Brighter Futures initiative last year. Aligned with the State of Michigan’s oral health plan, it’s aimed at tackling the state’s dental crisis with a three-pronged strategy of education, advocacy and philanthropy.
“It got started because there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of awareness about the importance of oral health,” says Teri Battaglieri, Delta Dental’s director of corporate citizenship and philanthropy.
“Our initial focus was on children’s oral health and literacy. From there, the initiative itself has developed and grown,” she adds. “We focus on seven priorities, which range from expanding the Healthy Kids Dental program to every child in the state; to increasing awareness and education around the damaging impact of sugar-sweetened beverages; to working towards having all children in the state who are entering kindergarten take a dental assessment, a dental screening, just like vision and hearing screenings.”
Other priorities include: improving dental care and oral health education for expectant mothers; developing and offering a high-quality oral health education curriculum for children pre-kindergarten through elementary school; backing proven programs like sealants and fluoridation to prevent oral diseases; and increasing access to oral health care for at-risk populations like seniors, military veterans and those dealing with homelessness.
Public Sector Consultants has played an integral role in the effort, according to Battaglieri, by providing Delta Dental with the research it needed to craft effective public policy. PSC draws on years of experience looking into dental policy issues for dental providers and other clients, and has facilitated statewide stakeholders groups to help develop oral health policy.
PSC President Peter Pratt manages the company’s Health Division.
“There’s some things we do very well,” he says of oral pediatric health in Michigan. “But there’s a good number of children, especially in at-risk families, who don’t have the access to dental care. A lot of that has to do with the fact that there are not many providers in some areas like central cities. So it makes it very difficult for families with small children living in Detroit to get access to dental care.”
Fortunately, the Brighter Futures initiative has been getting traction lately on regional access to providers.
Gov. Rick Snyder recently signed a budget that expands the state’s Healthy Kids Dental program, which provides dental coverage to Medicaid-eligible state residents under the age of 21 through Delta Dental. The program was launched in 2000 by Delta Dental, the State of Michigan and the Michigan Dental Association. This new budget will cover roughly 70,000 youths in Ottawa, Ingham and Washtenaw counties. Brighter Futures is now focused on getting coverage for children in five remaining unserved counties: Kalamazoo, Kent, Macomb, Oakland and Wayne.
The initiative has partnered with the McMillen Center for Health Education in Indiana to create the Brush! oral health program, which features a 52-week oral health curriculum for preschool students. The program is being taught to 25,000 children in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.
Brighter Futures also assembled 1,200 oral health tote bags that legislators took into Michigan first-grade classrooms in March. They contained resources on the importance of oral health, brushing charts and instruction plans for teachers with oral science and reading activities.
On the philanthropic front, Brighter Futures has partnered with the Michigan Department of Community Health to run a grant program for communities interested in fluoridating their water or repairing fluoridation facilities. It also funds the state’s SEAL! Michigan program, which fits students teeth with dental sealants to protect their teeth.
Looking at the initiative as a whole, PSC President Peter Pratt is quite optimistic about the impact it can make in Michigan.
“If you take all of what Delta Dental is recommending in the report, I think you could have a profound positive impact on oral health care for young children,” he says. “We vastly underestimate how much oral health disease, even cavities, make it difficult for children to learn and lead to problems later in their childhood. There’s an opportunity here to make a huge difference.”