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New Kentucky program is aimed at improving smiles


Kentucky health officials are hoping a new program will improve dental care in a state more known for gaps in its oral health and its smiles.

Gov. Steve Beshear announced the plan on Tuesday, pledging about $2 million in state and federal money designed to improve access to dentists in impoverished eastern Kentucky counties and elsewhere. Beshear flanked himself with 13 youngsters from a local elementary school to emphasize his desire to improve dental care for children.

“Whether it’s a ’20/20′ news show or a made for TV movie, too often the face of our state is that of a person missing a mouthful of teeth,” Beshear said. “While this stereotype is unfair, there’s little doubt that we do have a serious problem.”

Kentucky’s shortcomings with dental care have been highlighted in recent years.

A 2004 study found the state had the most people in the country over age 65 who were missing teeth, and more than a quarter of all residents had lost six or more teeth to tooth decay or gum disease. A 2001 study found nearly half of kids age 4 or younger had untreated dental issues, more than double the national average.

Dental problems, which can often be painful, often lead youngsters to developing poor nutritional habits, affected speech and harming performance in school, Beshear said.

“This isn’t just a dental program, it’s a health problem,” Beshear said. “Teeth aren’t just for looks and good oral health isn’t just cosmetic — it’s a key factor to overall health.”

The new three-year plan is supposed to help train more dentists to be comfortable working on children. Pediatric dentists operate in just 28 of Kentucky’s 120 counties, Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Janie Miller said.

Officials are also hoping to create 12 coalitions in economically distressed counties to help design oral health programs, and be eligible for additional grants for local needs, Miller said.

The state is hoping to buy two sets of portable dental equipment to treat patients in nontraditional settings such as schools, day care centers and senior citizen centers, Beshear said.

“Dental problems are preventable, they just have to be made a priority,” Beshear said.

Access to dental care is a problem, especially in Appalachia and far western Kentucky, officials said. Many children in those areas are eligible to get Medicaidfunded dental care, but there are not enough dentists to serve them.

Mike Porter, executive director of the Kentucky Dental Association, said he thinks the plan should help improve the state’s overall oral health.

“It will be meaningful in the long run,” Porter said. “You have to start somewhere and this is a very, very good start.”

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