little or nothing because it is the right thing to do. However, without regular dental visits, they are likely to be back in the dental chair for emergency care several more times in their lifetimes.
Dental health is an integral part of overall health. Lack of treatment for dental disease has the potential to affect a child’s speech, nutrition, social development, and quality of life. Children with missing or decayed teeth are more likely to experience poor self-esteem and be reluctant to smile. Pain caused by dental decay affects a child’s ability to eat and receive the nutrition necessary for growth and development. Children with oral diseases are restricted in their daily activities and miss over 51 million hours of school each year (HHS, 2000). Oral diseases have also been linked to eye, ear, and sinus infections as well as weakened immune systems, heart disease, and lung disease. Infections of the mouth frequently spread to other organs, causing critical complications for children including blindness and even death. Dental disease is even transmissible—passing from a pregnant mother to a child or even through sharing a drink or food.
Needless suffering occurs because the nation is failing to adequately provide children with access to the dental services they need. In February 2009, President Obama signed the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) into law.1 The legislation includes several critical provisions to improving children’s access to dental services. Specifically, the law guarantees a dental benefit for children that includes preventive, restorative, and emergency dental services; provides dental health education for the parents of newborns; allows community health centers to contract with private dentists for the purpose of providing dental services to these patients; improves access to dental provider information through the Insure Kids Now website and hotline; requires that the Government Accountability Office conduct a study assessing children’s access to dental services within 18 months of the bill’s enactment; and directs the secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a core set of child health quality measures for assessing states’ Medicaid and CHIP programs, including measures for the availability of dental services and the quality of pediatric dental care. The law also includes wraparound dental benefits for children who are eligible for CHIP but have private medical insurance that does not include dental services.
However, much more needs to be done. Comprehensive health care reform must include oral health care. Incentives must be created for dentists to treat low-income and underserved patients by increasing reimbursement rates. Also, heavy investments in public education are needed to ensure that all parents understand the critical importance of oral health and to enhance prevention activities. Finally, the problem of access to oral health care