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Plan would require child dental visits




FRANKFORT

In a state known for its poor teeth, Kentucky legislators may be looking to chomp down on the state’s dental health problem.

A plan sponsored by Rep. Tom Burch, and backed by the Kentucky Dental Association, would require youngsters to visit a dentist before enrolling in public school or preschool. In a state that ranks among the nation’s leaders in toothless adults, the hope is to instill in children good dental health habits early on, Burch said.

“We’re rock bottom as far as taking care of our children’s teeth,” Burch said. “We’ve got a serious problem with that.”

Currently, Kentucky ranks second in the country behind only its eastern neighbor West Virginia for the number of adults over age 65 who have had all their teeth removed, said Gwenda Bond, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

And, Kentucky had the country’s sixth worst percentage of adults who visited a dentist in 2006. While the U.S. average was 70.3 percent, only 63.3 percent of Kentucky’s adults went to a dentist that year, Bond said.

A study by the Kentucky Institute of Medicine last year found that 37 percent of Kentucky adults were missing at least six teeth, which is four percentage points higher than the national average.

Burch, D-Louisville, said he’s been pushing the issue for years after seeing some of the problems children in Kentucky often have with their teeth. The measure, which would require children ages 3-6 to have a dental exam before enrolling in school, is pending for a vote before the full House, which could come at any time.

“We’ve got some areas of the state where people are not inclined to take their children to the dentist, or they can’t afford it,” Burch said.

But good dental health habits may be rooted in childhood, said Mike Porter, executive director of the Kentucky Dental Association. Dentists have been pushing for the legislation for nearly a decade, Porter said.

An early trip to a dentist can teach children it’s not always about pain, and it gives them first contact with a dentist they could at least turn to if a problem erupts later in life, Porter said.

“We know there’s a lot of children out there as well as adults that have immediate problems that can be fixed,” Porter said. “You don’t have to grow up with the thought that you grow up and lose your teeth and that’s it.”

Right now, Kentucky pupils entering school are required to have had seven different immunizations, a physical exam and an eye test before entering school, Lisa Gross, a Department of Education spokeswoman, said.

Gross said the department did not have a strong position either way on the proposal, but added that the cost of administering the dental exams could be a factor. Officials at the Health and Family Services Cabinet also had reservations about the bill’s cost, Bond said.

Tooth decay and other dental problems can lead to serious problems and, in extreme cases, death, said Dr. Ann Greenwell, a pediatric dentist at the University of Louisville.

Greenwell pointed to the case of a 12-year-old boy who died last year in Maryland from a dental abscess that went untreated as an example of why the legislation is required. Examinations for other potential health problems, such as with vision and hearing, are already required, Greenwell noted.

“Getting cavities is not a part of growing up,” Greenwell said. “The pain, discomfort, the loss of school time for something that is totally preventable is unacceptable in an affluent nation like we have here.”

There are about 12,000 youngsters who don’t qualify for Medicaid coverage and whose parents can’t afford a dental exam, Burch said. They would be administered free exams under the proposal, Porter said. Dentists throughout the state have agreed to give them the exams free of charge, Porter said.

“We hope to get things better here,” Porter said.

Rep. David Floyd, RBardstown, voted against the proposal when it came before a legislative panel earlier this month. Floyd agrees people – including children – should see a dentist on a regular basis, but doesn’t think it’s up to the state to mandate.

Some charitable groups already offer dental services to people throughout the state who can’t afford it, Floyd said. And, he mentioned that dentists have already offered to provide the screenings to some children at no charge.

“Our tendency is to become the parent for every child in the state and we need to try to restrain that impulse as much as possible,” Floyd said. “Even though we mean well, we should stop trying to become the parent for every child in Kentucky.”

The legislation is House Bill 186.


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