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The Growing Gap in Oral Healthcare for Arizona’s Hispanic Children

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As the national debate over healthcare grows and our country grapples with changes to the Affordable Care Act, let us not lose sight of our state’s specific challenges in providing care for the most vulnerable among us.

At Valle del Sol, we see these challenges on a daily basis. For the past 44 years, we’ve worked tirelessly to fill an ever-widening gap in health services available to our Latino community. One of the most pressing community health issues today is also one that is often overlooked – early and affordable access to dental care for Hispanic children.

Arizona Children Lag Far Behind the Nation in Access to Oral Healthcare

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Kurt Sheppard

According to a recent report from the Arizona Department of Health Services, 56 percent of Arizona’s Hispanic kindergartners have a history of tooth decay. This is compared to 46 percent of Hispanic children nationally. Even more alarming is a 2011 Head Start Dental survey from the Arizona Department of Health Services that found 34 percent of our state’s Hispanic preschool children have tooth decay that is left untreated.

We must ask ourselves, in a state with a significant Hispanic population, “Why are we not doing more to meet the oral health needs of our children?” The reasons are varied and the system complex.

First, Hispanic children are far less likely than non-Hispanics to have dental insurance. An Arizona Department of Health Service’s report shows 33 percent of the state’s Hispanic children have no dental insurance—public or private, compared to just 14 percent of non-Hispanic races and 20 percent of white children.

Further, Medicaid currently covers dental services for children, but Arizona lags the nation in the percentage of dentists who accept public insurance. Forty-two percent of dentists nationwide accept public insurance, while in Arizona that number drops to 32 percent. Moreover, only 25 percent of Arizona dentists bill $10,000 or more in public insurance claims—a statistic used to identify dentists who are treating a significant number of children on Medicaid.

Second, every county in Arizona has a dental shortage area, including Maricopa. With so many areas with a shortage of dentists, is it any wonder that more than one-third of our preschoolers have untreated tooth decay?

A Sensible, Proven Solution

Given the numerous challenges our children face, a sensible, proven solution to quality oral healthcare is desperately needed. One such innovative solution is through qualified dental therapists. These highly skilled professionals provide preventive care and the most common, basic restorative procedures, such as fillings and stainless steel crowns.

This is the same approach that the medical profession has successfully employed with allied health professionals; allowing highly trained and qualified individuals to provide healthcare to patients. I’m confident that available resources could be broadened exponentially and more cost effective with capable, caring dental therapists working as part of a team with dentists.

That is why I urge our lawmakers to study this solution in great detail. I also want to encourage our elected officials to contact front-line community service organizations for first-hand insights into how we as Arizonans can do more to bridge the healthcare gap for our state’s children.

Kurt Sheppard is the Chief Executive Officer of Valle del Sol.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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