Nearly half of Kentucky third and sixth graders are in need of dental care, a sharp increase from 15 years ago, when it was 32 percent.
A new statewide oral health research project uncovered what Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks calls a paradox.
Why has the need for dental care spiked even though more children are now covered by insurance?
"Just that paradox says that we need to do some more digging,” he states. “Some of it is just as basic as, 'If I'm a kid and I'm covered, but I don't really have access to care then that coverage doesn't do me any good.'"
Brooks says both delivery of dental care and educating parents about the importance of care must be improved.
Children in 60 schools across the state got dental exams for the study, which was commissioned by Kentucky Youth Advocates and Delta Dental of Kentucky.
Dr. Cliff Maesaka is CEO of Delta Dental, the largest provider of oral health benefits in the state. He says Kentucky has to develop an oral health plan, and it must have a regional focus to be successful.
"I think the key takeaway there is not, it's someone in Louisville telling someone in Hazard what to do,” he states. “It's someone in Hazard telling someone in Louisville, 'Hey, this would work best in Hazard.'"
The research found two out of every five students examined had untreated cavities, and the rate was higher in some rural areas and among lower-income children.
Maesaka says parents have to recognize that dental health is an essential component of a child's overall health.
"Problems in the mouth will often manifest in other parts of the body,” he points out. “Untreated disease in the mouth is every bit as dangerous as untreated disease in a heart, a hand or a leg."
Maesaka says there is no single solution to the problem and no one group – lawmakers, schools or insurance companies – that can do it alone.
He calls sealants the "best tool" for protecting a child's permanent teeth, but researchers found more than half the children examined did not have them.