In 1996, a pediatric dentist came to Congress with a simple idea: Make it easier for high-risk kids to get dental care.
Dr. Burton Edelstein had seen too many children with painful mouths and rotted teeth. Most tooth decay can be prevented, but families at highest risk for dental problems—families with few resources—often delayed care.
So after 21 years of private practice in Connecticut, Dr. Edelstein dove into health policy. A Robert Wood Johnson fellowship led him to the office of Sen. Tom Daschle. Dr. Edelstein was there when Congress passed the Children's Health Insurance Program without a mandated dental benefit. No organization was speaking up for kids' dental care. That had to change.
In 1997, he created the Children's Dental Health Project as "the voice for children's oral health." And in 2009, after dogged work with state and federal partners and legislative champions, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was reauthorized—with dental requirements and $100 million in new funding for children's oral health.
Today, almost 47 million children have access to dental coverage through Medicaid and CHIP dental safety net programs. While too many do not access care, the American Dental Association reports that as a percentage, children had more dental visits than any other group in 2011, with utilization "driven entirely by gains among lower income groups." Those are the very kids at highest risk for dental decay—the kids who inspired Dr. Edelstein to come to Washington, and who motivate us today.
More children and teens will gain private dental coverage through the Affordable Care Act—pediatric dental health is one of the law's 10 Essential Health Benefits. That's a meaningful victory and here too, CDHP helped drive the change. But there is so much more to be done.
The Children's Dental Health Project will keep working to:
Prevent childhood tooth decay, because cavities are the result of a disease that is overwhelmingly preventable
Promote innovative, cost-effective solutions grounded in science, and support exploration where evidence is lacking
Engage decision-makers to address oral health disparities and ultimately improve our nation's health
More young children suffer from tooth decay than from any other chronic condition, including asthma. We can change this. Let's keep moving forward for kids.
CDHP is the proud recipient of the 2014 Public Service Award from the American Association of Public Health Dentistry.
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