Lack of dental care is big hole in our safety net

May 07, 2016

Kathy Long, Claudia Harrison and Eric Harrison

Ventura County received a wake-up call a few weeks ago when the California Dental Association Cares event came to the Ventura fairgrounds.

Representing the county of Ventura, United Way of Ventura County and First 5 Ventura County, we were proud to be among many organizations that helped support the event through sponsorships, volunteers and outreach. We joined over 1,400 people who volunteered their time to provide $1.5 million worth of dental care to 1,884 people. Many residents who had long delayed needed dental care because they couldn't afford it received services that alleviated pain and brought back smiles.

CDA Cares is a two-day event held twice a year in different areas of the state by the California Dental Association Foundation. The primary goal of CDA Cares is to improve the overall health of people by relieving oral pain and eliminating infection. The association knows it is also an opportunity to demonstrate the need in communities firsthand and engage all in working together to remove barriers to dental care.

CDA Cares was clearly a good thing for many in Ventura County. And yet we were struck with the reality that those served do not have access to regular care. These are neighbors, colleagues, friends and even classmates at your child's school. Most notably, it was astounding to arrive at the fairgrounds and see the line of people waiting in the hot sun. This is not how we should be delivering basic dental care to people in need.

The line began at 4 a.m. Many had to come back the next day, and some could not be accommodated simply because there were so many people seeking care.

As volunteers, it was difficult not to feel the impact — the heartbreak — from the frustration and disappointment of a grandmother, with two young grandchildren in her care, who had come Saturday, returned again Sunday, but unfortunately was too late to get care. As she turned and left the fairgrounds, it was clear the options available to her were limited at best.

Why? Is this what basic dental care should look like in our county? We think not.

California has one of the nation's lowest Denti-Cal reimbursement rates (roughly a third of the rate of private insurers). California ranks 47th in the nation in oral health care. Tooth decay is the most common chronic illness among children — and the most preventable. It's five times more common than asthma. A quarter of all children under age 5 have cavities.

Managing symptoms of tooth decay is 10 times more expensive than providing preventive services. Over 25,000 children have dental-related emergency room visits, and they're likely costing the state millions of dollars. Over 500,000 dental-related school absences cost schools $40 million.

This is not right for our community, and it is not right for the providers of care.

We have an opportunity to work together to increase awareness and education about a disease that is preventable. It's an opportunity to work together with our elected state officials to fix the Denti-Cal system, increase reimbursement rates, engage more dentists and improve regular access to dental care.

Good oral health equals good overall health.

Kathy Long is a Ventura County supervisor and First 5 Ventura County commissioner. Claudia Harrison is executive director of First 5 Ventura County. Eric Harrison is president and CEO of United Way of Ventura County.

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