1. Opinion

Column: Dental care essential for kids

The state of children's health — both here in Florida and throughout our country — is a barometer for the future. Simply put, the health of our economy, educational system and culture is contingent upon the personal health and well-being of our population. Our children and our actions to support them will define the health of our future.

Health care has been a hot-button policy issue and an integral part of the political discourse for decades now, but we have only just begun to focus on an area of care that for so many can dictate the outcome of their health and happiness.

Easily accessible, high-quality dental care can affect so much more than a child's smile. It can mean the difference between a confident attitude and low self-esteem. And children suffering from tooth decay and pain are more likely to have lower grades and suffer in many other aspects of life, including eating, sleeping and speaking.

Proper preventive dental care is critical for our children's success in school and beyond. But for years, 80 percent of Florida children covered by our Medicaid program never saw a dentist. We had the worst rate of any state in the nation, and our children were suffering. Because the state's payments for Medicaid services were so low, many dentists simply refused to treat kids with Medicaid.

As a foster parent, this yawning gap in access to critical dental care is deeply personal to me. I'm grateful that our state enrolls all foster children in Medicaid, ensuring that they have a basic level of health care coverage. But when my daughter was a teenager in the foster care system, the closest dentist to our Tallahassee home was in Perry — a one-hour drive, simply to get her teeth cleaned.

But this isn't just about ensuring children with Medicaid have clean teeth and beautiful smiles, though the confidence boost it gives them certainly does wonders for their mental health. Early in my career, I worked with a pediatric dentist and saw young toddlers with such terrible tooth decay that they required dentures. Children came to our office with tooth infections so bad their eyes were swollen shut. In Maryland, 12-year-old Deamonte Driver died after a tooth infection spread to his brain because his mother couldn't find a dentist who accepted Medicaid to perform an $80 tooth extraction. Instead, his state's Medicaid program paid more than $200,000 for two weeks of hospital care before Deamonte passed away.

Deamonte's death could have been prevented. In fact, the vast majority of dental disease is preventable.

The good news is, in Florida, we're making progress. Just five years ago, barely 20 percent of kids with Medicaid had a dental visit. Last year, that rate rose to 33 percent. This is a commendable improvement in just four years, and it is something we should celebrate.

But, if we're being honest, things went from abysmal to just plain bad. Two-thirds of Florida children with Medicaid coverage will not see a dentist this year and will be at risk for other health complications, not to mention the additional health care costs that are associated with poor oral health.

We must do better for Florida's kids and, fortunately, we can. By increasing Medicaid payments to dentists, our state can encourage more dentists to offer their services to Medicaid patients. It's true that Medicaid payment rates are typically less than what private insurers pay. Nationally, Medicaid's dental payments are about half of what private insurers pay. But in Florida, Medicaid pays just 37 percent of the average private insurance rate. We must increase reimbursement so that more Florida dentists will participate in Medicaid.

All Florida children, including children in the foster care system, deserve access to the complete range of care they need to live healthy, productive lives. Oral health is a strong predictor of overall health, and I urge our elected officials to support policies that increase access to quality, preventive dental care for all Florida children.

Victoria Vangalis Zepp of Tallahassee is a private consultant and an appointee to Florida Children and Youth Cabinet.