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March 8, 2012
TOPEKA Members of the Legislature's newly formed oral health caucus heard today how a school district in southeast Kansas reduced student tooth decay by half in five years, even though most of the students had no dental insurance.
Brian Smith, superintendent of schools in Galena, told the group of seven legislators and a dozen others who attended the first meeting of the caucus that his school-based dental care program had achieved far-reaching results in a short time span.
He said rate of tooth decay among the district's students had dropped from 50 percent in 2007 to 28 percent this year.
"That has had a tremendous impact on our school district, not just on the oral health of the kids but how they feel about themselves and on academics," Smith said. "It has also made a tremendous impact if you look at the cost of health care. A lot of time in the past, those kids were being taken to the emergency room when they got so bad their parents didn't know what to do."
In 2007, Smith began working with the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas to annually screen all the students in the district, which has about 800 pupils.
The school nurse gets permission from parents for needed work or cleaning and schedules in-school appointments for the children. Smith said the health center arranges to send hygienists and dentists to the school so students miss minimal class time.
"The first intervention was like a war on oral health, repairing all the damage that was done," Smith said.
The first year took six weeks of appointments, but last year everything was done in less than three weeks.
"Now we're at the point where we're into prevention," he said, "and it doesn't take as much time or cost."
The community health center's chief executive, Krista Postai, said that any student given parental permission can receive care.
"If they have some kind of (health plan) coverage, we'll bill that," she said. "If they don't have coverage, we just write that off."
About half the students who have received care had no insurance, she said.
Postai cited "soda, candy and bad eating habits" as primary causes of tooth decay. And she said she suspected fewer parents were teaching good oral hygiene habits than were a generation ago.
She also said working parents have trouble getting time off for dental appointments.
"Imagine someone with five kids and a full-time job with both parents working, you don't get them to the dentist. It's not about bad parenting." Postai said.
The in-school program has since expanded to screen students in 11 counties in southeast Kansas. Five school districts have begun doing restorative dental care.
The $2.1 million program is funded by federal and state government programs as well as contributions from a dozen state organizations and health foundations, Postai said.
"This is a social justice issue. We either believe people should have access to these things or not. I don't know how we deal with that, but maybe we can address that next time," said Barbara Bollier, a Republican from Mission Hills. "Until we start talking about that, we're never going to get anywhere."
Rep. Bob Bethell, an Alden Republican, chaired the caucus meeting.
Organizers said they expected another caucus meeting would be held before the end of the month.
The KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and is committed to timely, objective and in-depth coverage of health issues and the policy making environment. Find more about the News Service at khi.org/newsservice or contact us at (785) 783-2529.