Oral health is one of the greatest unmet health needs of all Americans and rural Americans. The central valley of California illustrates this crisis, including the counties of Stanislaus and Merced. Often, children and the elderly suffer from a lack of affordable and easily accessible dental services.
Congress has failed to expand Medicare health care coverage to include dental care, although tooth decay is the most common chronic disease among retirees and known associations between inflammation from the disease. periodontal disease and many chronic systemic diseases. As a result, millions of older people do not have dental insurance and remain at risk of declining oral and systemic health.
For children aged five to 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% have tooth decay. Such cavities, if left untreated, can have an irreversible impact on a child’s health, as there is a link between chronic oral infections and diabetes, heart disease and adverse pregnancy outcomes.
Legacy Health Endowment and EMC Health Foundation collaborated with the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry to examine the current and future dental needs of children and seniors in Stanislaus and Merced counties, and how best to provide care more accessible and affordable dental care to those in need.
While most of the children in our counties have dental coverage and use the dental program supported by Medi-Cal, the need for greater and earlier access to preventive care remains paramount.
Disability, common chronic diseases, and the drugs used to treat them pose unique oral health risks in older adults. Yet millions of older Californians do not qualify for Denti-Cal and have limited or no dental coverage after retirement. In addition, out-of-pocket expenses force many people to limit or forgo dental care.
The challenges and obstacles are not new; in rural California, their growth is exponential. The intersection between oral health and total health is particularly accentuated as more general dentists and specialists are needed to meet the demand for numbers and diversity in the Central Valley.
Our first step: Sponsor local students attending UOP School of Dentistry with a scholarship that pays 100% of their tuition. In turn, they agree to return to the larger LHE and EMC Health Foundation communities to work as a dentist for three years after graduation, addressing the needs of all patients. The number of dentists approaching retirement age exceeds the number of new dentists entering Merced and Stanislaus counties.
Improving access to high quality dental care in Merced and Stanislaus counties will not happen overnight or with just one policy. Problems have been ignored for too long and overnight solutions are not achievable. This will require lawmakers, health professionals, advocates and charitable foundations to overcome the current disparities and close the gaps. In addition, we must recognize the need for culturally competent bilingual providers in all areas of medicine and dental care.
As we sponsor local students for the chance to become dentists and serve their community, our goal is to ensure they graduate debt free and ready to meet the dental needs of every citizen. Our goal is simple: To build a strong group of English, Spanish, Farsi, Punjabi and Afghan speaking dentists to serve the Central Valley, giving hope and opportunity and empowering children and the elderly.
The return on investment is seeing this student cross the stage as the next dental expert ready to serve our rural communities.
Jeffrey Lewis is President and CEO of Legacy Health and EMC Health Foundations. Elisa M. Chávez is Director of the Pacific Center for Equity in Oral Health Care at the University of the Pacific. Geraldine Gerges Gaid is Interim President of Pediatric Dentistry at UOP.
This story was originally published December 17, 2021 5:00 a.m.