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Originally published Aug. 5, 2013 at 9 a.m., updated Aug. 7, 2013 at 5:35 p.m.
TOPEKA - A national foundation is stepping up to help Kansas solve one of its most persistent health care problems – lack of access to dental care in many parts of the state.
A 2011 report done by researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that at least 57,000 Kansans live in “dental deserts,” areas where the closest dental office is at least a half-hour’s drive from where they live.
The DentaQuest Foundation has given a $100,000 grant to Oral Health Kansas to develop a plan for improving access to dental care. The nonprofit group will work with several other Kansas oral health organizations to craft the plan and submit to the foundation for a possible two-year implementation grant.
The DentaQuest Foundation is the philanthropic arm of DentaQuest, one of the nation’s largest dental insurance companies. The Kansas grant is one of 27 the foundation has provided to state coalitions to address oral health issues.
“This is really a chance to step back, bring a large group of stakeholders together and figure this out,” said Tanya Dorf Brunner, director of Oral Health Kansas. “We’re going to develop a plan by the end of this calendar year and start implementing it next year, probably in the spring.”
Representatives from the Kansas Dental Association, the Kansas Hospital Association, the Bureau of Oral Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Delta Dental, the state’s largest dental insurance company will also serve on the planning group. So too will representatives from two safety net clinics and two statewide nursing home groups, the Kansas Health Care Association and Leading Age Kansas.
In many rural areas, hospitals and nursing homes could play key roles in expanding access to dental care, Dorf Brunner said.
In 2011, the Kansas Legislature sought to improve access to dental services in rural areas by passing a law that allowed hospitals in communities of 50,000 or fewer people to operate dental clinics. But so far, a complex set of issues surrounding hospital finances has prevented even one from taking advantage of the law.
Those issues were identified in a recent study done by the Kansas Hospital Education and Research Foundation. It looked specifically at the feasibility of establishing hospital-based dental clinics in Ashland and Scott City.
“What we found is that there are some significant barriers,” said Melissa Hungerford, an executive vice president of the hospital association.
Essentially, the study found that the hospitals would not be able to cover the costs of building and staffing the clinics.
“On the face of it, the data doesn’t look promising,” Hungerford said. “But I would hate to say that the study closed the door on the opportunity (of establishing hospital-based dental clinics) because it didn’t. We can use what we learned to test the new models that this project might come up with.”
Dorf Brunner said she is hoping that is precisely what the planning will produce: a blueprint for eliminating any financial or administrative barriers faced by hospitals and nursing homes.
“I refuse to believe there’s not a way to make this work,” she said. “This (the grant) gives us the time and energy to step back and figure that out.”
Megan Foreman, a former health policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, has been hired to direct the work of the coalition, Dorf Brunner said.
The DentaQuest grant is not tied to another high-profile effort to improve access to dental services in underserved areas, which include some urban settings in addition to sparsely populated regions of the state.
For several years now a coalition headed by Kansas Action for Children has been pushing lawmakers to approve licensing for mid-level dental practitioners, which would allow specially trained hygienists to do some procedures that now can only be done by dentists.
Similar licensing changes have been approved in other states, but the Kansas Dental Association has blocked its passage here, contending that allowing hygienists to extract diseased teeth, fill cavities, construct crowns and repair dentures could jeopardize the safety of patients.
(Editor’s note: The Kansas Health Foundation – a major funder of the Kansas Health Institute and the KHI News Service – supports the licensing of mid-level dental practitioners.)
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the organizations involved in the planning group.
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