Communities across Florida are struggling with chronic dental access shortages and serious consideration is needed regarding widespread improvements.
Poor oral health resulting from dental access shortages have risen to public health crisis levels. Florida leads the nation in the number of individuals living in areas designated as Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas. Sixty-six of Florida’s 67 counties have shortages of dentists.
According to Betty Kabel, Director of Dental Outreach at North Florida Medical Centers, trying to find a dentist for children on Medicaid or without health insurance is challenging. “I recently saw a young boy at an elementary school who was in so much dental pain that he was crying in a fetal position. He cried for 45 minutes until he finally fell asleep, she said. ““If a child has a broken arm, we fix it. Yet virtually every day I see children walking around with dental infections that are literally inches from their brain. It’s truly heartbreaking because I can only do so much. Things have to change.”
A Powerhouse Coalition Forms
Addressing Florida’s oral health epidemic will require robust collaboration and cross-sector data sharing to better understand how community members access dental health care. Two solution-oriented not-for-profits with complementary skill sets – Floridians for Dental Access and American Children’s Campaign — have joined together to form one powerhouse coalition to improve oral health equity and dental access.
Floridians for Dental Access, led by Dr. Frank Catalanotto, is a collaboration of more than 60 organizations representing hundreds of thousands of individuals. American Children’s Campaign, led by Roy Miller, is Florida’s leading nonpartisan voice for children at the state capitol and in communities across Florida. For 30 years, American Children’s Campaign has been at the forefront of numerous policy improvements eliminating barriers standing in kids’ way.
“Together, our strategic collaboration has a high level of dental expertise, award-winning public education and advocacy experience, and the ability to elevate voices of those most impacted by lack of dental care,” explained Dr. Catalanotto. “Just as importantly, American Children’s Campaign’s informed Team Future network brings valuable cross-sector expertise from major public systems touching Florida children’s lives,” he added.
Led by a diverse group of citizen leaders, Team Future members include parents and grandparents, retired professionals, and front-line staff and leadership from child- and family-focused organizations. Team Future’s Leadership Council is chaired by former Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp and Latino Leadership Executive Director Marucci Guzmán serves as Vice Chair.
Exploring promising solutions with proven track records
There aren’t enough dental providers who can meet the needs of the dental access crisis – especially for children and those without insurance.
Betty Kabel explains, “we work to get our urgent care children in to see the dentist, but the problem is there aren’t enough available. Since our dental services are available to all ages and economic status, we have a waiting list. Children are usually treated with antibiotics and referred to specialists. Again, the children are faced with the challenge of finding a provider to treat them completely. It’s a continuous cycle.”
Increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates or providing an adult Medicaid dental benefit only address a part of the problem and no guarantee exists they will greatly increase access. One solution being actively proposed this year is permitting licensed dental hygienists to work under the supervision of a doctor in certain health access settings such as federal health clinics, Head Start centers and other prescribed settings. Other advances are under discussion as well.
“Florida policy aware citizens are becoming increasingly aware of the crisis. They worry about their own kids accessing affordable oral health care and their neighbor’s kids too. We’re building on that by listening and learning from individuals and communities most impacted, exploring evidence-based short-term and long-term solutions, as well as unifying an expansive coalition of voices”, Miller explained.
The link between oral health and overall health is well-documented. On average:
- people without regular dental care have more cavities, fewer teeth, and poorer overall health.
- Untreated cavities in children have been linked to increased school absenteeism, poor school performance and lower self-esteem.
- Untreated periodontal disease or gum diseases has been linked to heart disease, sepsis, pneumonia and more.
- Pregnant women with poor oral health have a higher risk of premature births and other complications.
- Shockingly, Floridians often turn to hospitals emergency rooms for dental treatment, and Florida hospitals charged more than $550 million in 2021 for preventable dental health issues.
In most cases, however, emergency departments can’t fully address dental pain and misery. Dental infections flare up again once the antibiotics and painkillers run out. Florida taxpayers take a severe financial hit by picking up the tab for the majority of these charges and through rising health care costs.