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  1. Opinion

Column: Florida's children deserve dental care

Boy (8-9) being examined at dentist
Published Feb. 9, 2018

As a pediatric dentist, and as a father and grandfather, it breaks my heart to see children suffer from long-lasting oral health problems that could have been prevented.

Tooth decay is the No. 1 chronic childhood disease in America, with 40 percent of children having cavities by the time they enter kindergarten. Oral health problems can threaten children's heart health, self-confidence and their ability to learn. Children with toothaches miss more days of school and are more likely to have lower GPAs.

Troubled by these staggering statistics? Dental professionals across Florida are working to turn the tide, but paving a better path for the future demands an all-in approach. February is National Children's Dental Month, which offers us all an opportunity to start a conversation in our communities. Parents are a child's primary and most important role model, but grandparents and teachers can help set the stage by practicing healthy dental habits of their own.

Every new parent knows how important it is to pay regular visits to the pediatrician, but far too many parents are unaware of when their child should first see a dentist. The rule of thumb is that babies should see a dentist by their first birthday or when they cut their first tooth — whichever comes first.

As a child grows, parents should encourage brushing twice a day, flossing, using a fluoride toothpaste and limiting sugary snacks. Children should visit a dentist at least twice a year, but we know that many do not. In fact, nearly five percent of Florida high-schoolers have never been to the dentist, and a far greater percentage of our students lack dental insurance coverage, even though it is available.

In total, more than 257,000 children in Florida are living without insurance. Insurance can be expensive and I know cost can be a barrier to signing up for coverage. But right now, of the 257,000 children without coverage, 147,000 — more than half — qualify for free or low-cost health and dental coverage through Florida KidCare. We must do more to make parents aware of this invaluable resource and encourage families around us to apply.

Parents are often shocked to learn that with Florida KidCare, they may pay nothing or just $15 or $20 a month for coverage. KidCare's expansive dental benefits include preventive services, such as six-month cleanings, full sets of X-rays, sealants and coverage to fix cavities if they have them.

If your child or grandchild does not have dental insurance, join the nearly 2.5 million Florida families whose lives are made better through access to quality, affordable dental insurance and apply today at floridakidcare.org. The application costs nothing, and enrollment is open year-round.

A healthy smile is the first thing the world sees, and our children deserve nothing less than to be set up for success.

Dr. Peter Claussen is a pediatric dentist in Panama City and vice chair of the board of directors for the Florida Healthy Kids Corporation. He can be reached at dentist@panhandlepediatricdentistry.com.

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