Coalition unveils next steps to improve access to dental care in Maryland

State wants to focus on adults as well as children

May 17, 2011|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

Members of a statewide coalition formed after the death of a 12-year-old boy from Prince George's County from an untreated tooth infection unveiled a plan Tuesday to improve access to dental care.

The plan from the Maryland Dental Action Coalition builds on one formed in 2007 after the death of Deamonte Driver, which addressed the immediate shortage of oral care professionals who would treat low-income children by increasing the Medicaid reimbursement, streamlining the system and expanding safety net programs.

That plan succeeded in increasing care to thousands of kids: So far, the coalition reports that the number of dental providers has increased by 41 percent and access to care for children has increased by 28 percent.

Lawmakers, policymakers and industry officials were on hand Tuesday at a state office building in Baltimore to celebrate past successes and promote the new plan, which aims to increase care for all Marylanders.

"Our country is better than allowing a 12-year-old boy to die … from an infection in his tooth that went to his brain and could have been prevented with $80," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat from Baltimore who has helped secure funding for programs. "I think about the children that will benefit from what we do today."

Officials said tooth decay is the nation's most common childhood disease and is preventable. But some parents do not know the simplest steps to prevent tooth decay or how to find dental care.

Beth Lowe, chairwoman of the coalition, said much of the new effort will focus on linking dental care to general medical care by involving more health care providers and educating both professionals and the public about how to provide and gain access to dental care. An oral health literacy campaign will launch in the fall, paid for with $1.2 million in federal money.

Other elements of the new plan focus on extending care to more children and adults, and preventing disease and injury.

Members of the coalition, an independent collaboration whose members were drawn from government agencies, the health care industry and the public, said it has formed a solid base on which to work.

Specific elements achieved or in progress include:

• Moving to a single statewide vendor to administer Medicaid dental services. That has boosted the proportion of children accessing at least one dental service to almost 44 percent in 2009, up from less than 30 percent in 2005. There was a similar increase in the number of children accessing preventive care.

• Increasing reimbursements to dentists to attract more providers to the Medicaid program. That has added more than 400 providers to the system at a first-year cost of $14 million in state and federal funds.

• Allowing dental hygienists to provide screening and other services.

• Requiring dental screenings for public school children before school entry.

Other goals reached or in the works include enhancing public health infrastructure, developing a unified oral health message to the public and offering dental care providers training in the care of young children.

The new plan will remain in place for five years.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, called the improvement "rare" and said Maryland is now a national model.

"We understand that this is a base to build on," Sharfstein said, "not something to cross off our list."

To see the full report, including past and new goals, go to http://www.mdac.us.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/baltsunhealth

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