Students at Nyssa Elementary learn about oral health through Healthy, Happy Smiles, a school-based oral health program targeting eastern Oregon. A study on children’s oral health published last month by the Oregon Health and Science University determined that Medicaid-enrolled children in Malheur County had the highest rate of access to dental care in the state, according to data from 2018. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

VALE – Malheur County led the state in access to dental services for children enrolled in federal health insurance in 2018, according to a recent report by the Oregon Health and Science University.

Nearly 73% of the county’s kids who are in Medicaid, which covers services for low-income people, received at least one dental service in 2018.

The county’s percentage of kids enrolled in Medicaid who received at least one preventive service – 69% – was also the highest in Oregon, according to the report.

Statewide, 60% of Medicaid-enrolled children received at least one dental service that year, and 54% received at least one preventive service.

The study’s conclusion noted that “while transportation issues and dental provider shortages can create barriers to access in rural areas,” counties like Malheur had high percentages of care compared to other counties.

“To help expand access to dental services, Oregon could investigate how these rural counties have surmounted potential challenges with access,” the study said.

Oregon is struggling from an oral disease epidemic, said Melissa Freeman, director of strategic projects at the Oregon Community Foundation, which funded the report.

Increasing access to dental care is vital to help keep kids healthy and successful in school, she added.

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Freeman said school-based oral health programs are a powerful tool that could be driving Malheur County’s high rates of care. She pointed to the Eastern Oregon Healthy Living Alliance’s school-based program Healthy, Happy Smiles.

The program works in partnership with Advantage Dental to put on a hands-on dental learning lab at schools across the county.

Healthy, Happy Smiles provides the learning lab and Advantage Dental from DentaQuest provides the services.

The dental hygienist from Advantage Dental comes into schools and provides free check-ups and dental services to students whose parents have signed consent forms.

“In areas where we have a heavy presence we see higher rates of reaching our Medicaid population and I think that’s very true in Malheur County,” said Mary Ann Wren, manager of community care for Advantage Dental.

Advantage Dental currently serves 21 schools in Malheur County, from early head start to high school. It partners with Healthy, Happy Smiles in 11 county schools.

Wren said the hygienist her firm provides has developed a relationship with the schools.

“When we’re out in the community, any time she enters the services into our system we’re connected to a larger network and our case management team will follow up on kiddos who have elevated needs,” Wren added.

She said Advantage Dental will return to schools up to three times a year to follow up on kids found to be at risk for more serious dental issues.

The hygienist assesses students’ needs in a screening at school and then returns for preventive services.

“After every time we’re there [the kids] get a dental report card detailing what was done, what was seen and our recommendations,” Wren said. “Whenever that’s entered into the system if a child has urgent needs our case management team follows up to get them into care.”

The services, she added, are meant to be complementary; her team encourages parents to get a family dentist, and they help parents arrange that.

Wren said the goal is to get ahead of chronic diseases such as cavities.

The study also looked at the rate of emergency department visits that could have been prevented through timely care at a dentist’s office. The statewide number was 7.7 visits per every 1,000 Medicaid-enrolled children and young adults. In Malheur County, the rate was nine per 1,000.

“The research is clear. Poor oral health harms the well being of kids,” said Chris Coughlin, legislative director of Children First for Oregon.

Coughlin said her organization often hears accounts of kids who end up in the emergency room with severe dental pain. 

“Dental pain is a leading cause of absenteeism,” she said. “Kids suffering from dental pain are more likely to miss school and have lower grades. Families are going into medical debt that with the right services could have been prevented.”

“Here’s the bottom line,” she said. “All our kids need preventive dental care.”

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377

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