It’s a problem that we don’t think about a lot-but it’s very important. Many kids and families are not getting the routine dental care they need. There are many possible reasons for this, including the fact that many Americans lack dental insurance, many have trouble finding a dental provider, and dental care often comes with high out-of-pocket costs for both the insured and the uninsured.
The good news is that the Affordable Care Act will provide dental coverage to an estimated additional 5.3 million children. It will also extend certain financial protections to consumers, like offering premium tax credits to help purchase pediatric dental coverage through the exchange and banning annual and lifetime spending limits.
However, providing affordable dental insurance is only one piece of the puzzle. Ensuring that there are enough dental providers to treat vulnerable children is another issue. Dr. Louis Sullivan, a physician and the former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, raised this issue in a recent New York Times op-ed. He notes that the shortage of dentists is getting worse, and it may be time to expand the dental workforce in order to meet the growing dental need. He notes that 54 countries use mid-level dental providers known as “dental therapists” to provide preventive and routine dental care to kids who otherwise may not be able to get dental services. A comprehensive literature review on dental therapists shows that they provide effective and safe care to millions of kids throughout the world. Mid-level dental providers are working in rural and underserved communities in the United States in Alaska and Minnesota, providing preventive and routine care to kids who wouldn’t normally have access to a dentist.
Expanding access to dental care will require many policy and practice changes. As we think of ways to help Americans get the dental care they need, one strategy that is essential to consider is an expanded dental workforce.