Initiative Expands Access to Dental Care Essential to Children’s Well-Being
Tooth decay can inhibit a child’s ability to speak, learn and grow, exacerbating existing gaps in achievement and opportunity for underserved communities. February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, a timely opportunity to share progress on OCF’s five-year Children’s Dental Health Initiative and look at the Foundation’s continuing work to help Oregon children access the dental care they need to thrive.
Linda Mann, Director of Community Outreach for Capitol Dental Care in Salem, has been coordinating screening and sealant programs for kids for the past 10 years. The COVID-19 pandemic forced her program to pivot drastically during the 2020-2021 school year, and now they are working with local community partners to provide services via drive-thru clinics in parking lots so children still have access to dental care.
“We definitely have had to think outside the box to try to reach children during this time,” Linda says. “When we were in the schools, we were catching a lot of kids with urgent needs; now that they are not in school, we fear there are kids with unidentified oral health needs and in pain, falling through the cracks. Any opportunity we can come up with to reach kids, we are taking advantage of.”
Linda’s work is vital because healthy teeth are essential for children’s healthy development and well-being. When left untreated, tooth decay can lead to serious and even life-threatening complications. While tooth decay is preventable, half of children in Oregon experience tooth decay.1 Children in low-income families, children in rural areas and children of color experience disproportionate rates of tooth decay and are less likely to receive the care they need.
School-based dental health programs are an effective, evidence-based approach to provide children with oral health services, meeting children where they are – in schools. These programs serve a vital role within the dental health system. For some children, these programs are their only access to preventive dental care. In 2018, 8% of Oregon’s Medicaid-enrolled children ages 6-14 (nearly 30,000 children) received preventive dental services (not including dental cleanings) only through the school-based dental health programs in their communities.2
Together with our funding partners, including A-dec, The Collins Foundation, The Ford Family Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, Meyer Memorial Trust, Northwest Health Foundation, Providence Health & Services and OCF donors, we provided nearly $3 million to 15 school-based dental health programs through multi-year grants across Oregon.
During 2017-2018, the peak year for Initiative data collection about program services, these 15 programs conducted more than 23,500 screenings, placed more than 27,500 sealants, performed more than 6,900 fluoride varnish applications, and provided dental health education to over 25,900 students. The programs partnered with regional dental care organizations in order to align with Oregon’s coordinated care model.
The last year of funding for the programs from the Initiative was in 2019, but OCF made a set of emergency grants in 2020 for some programs as they struggled to pivot during the school closures caused by the pandemic and wildfires to serve students most in need. As OCF starts our second phase of the Initiative, we are focusing on advocacy to raise awareness of the importance of oral health at the state level and the need to provide services in community-based settings, such as schools, to reduce barriers to access. This Initiative helped expand access to school-based dental programs in 22 counties. Oregon needs these programs to continue to serve students when it is safe to return to school.
OCF recently produced the following reports to describe lessons learned from the Initiative and why children’s dental disease persists in Oregon: Children’s Dental Health Initiative Progress and Lessons Learned and Getting to the Roots of the Problem: Why Childhood Dental Disease Persists in Oregon.
Moving forward, OCF is leading a diverse group of dental health stakeholders to develop policy approaches and tools to improve the integration of oral health into Oregon’s healthcare system. The Pediatric Oral Health Coalition is spearheading a bill for the upcoming legislative session that calls for oral health education to be included in health curriculum in the schools when it is next updated by the Department of Education. The bill also clarifies that coordinated care organizations can be reimbursed for financially supporting school-based dental health programs (some are already doing this, but others need more direction). OCF is eager to see more state investment to improve outcomes for children’s dental health, such as filling the position of dental director and continuing to conduct the Oregon Smile & Healthy Growth Survey.
Healthy teeth and mouths contribute to a child’s overall health, willingness to smile and economic success in life. Dental disease is preventable, but it takes all of us working together to help kids get the preventive care and treatment they need. OCF is committed to this cause and welcomes your participation.
Learn more about the legislation and the organizations participating in the Coalition by visiting the Healthy Teeth/Bright Futures website. Support the Pediatric Oral Health Coalition by contributing to the Children’s Dental Health Initiative Fund of OCF.
 Oregon Health Authority. (2019). Oregon Oral Health Surveillance System. & Oregon Health Authority. (n.d.) Oregon Smile & Healthy Growth Survey 2017 [report summary].
 Kushner, J. and Renfro, S. (2020). Dental Care for Oregon’s Medicaid-Enrolled Children in 2018. Center for Health Systems Effectiveness, Oregon Health & Science University.