Oral health care advocates had a good deal to cheer about in 2018 as both Washington state and the federal government signed into law legislation aimed at expanding dental care access for underserved populations.
This year began with a short Washington state legislative session that yielded multiple oral health care access gains, including the Legislature’s unanimous support of Substitute Senate Bill 6549 and its continued support of the Oral Health Connections pilot program.
In 2017, the Legislature directed the Health Care Authority to work with Arcora Foundation to establish a three-year pilot program that expands dental care access for expectant mothers and people with diabetes to determine whether improved oral health will result in fewer complications and shorter hospital stays. Lawmakers selected Spokane, Thurston and Cowlitz counties for the Oral Health Connection test sites. The pilot program launches January 2019.
Legislators also expanded oral health care access for children with disabilities with SSB 6549, which directs the Health Care Authority to extend the Access to Baby and Child Dentistry program (ABCD) to Apple Health-covered children with disabilities up to age 12. ABCD aims to set children on a healthy start in life by connecting eligible children age five and younger with ABCD-certified dental care providers in their communities, and SSB 6549 helps ensure that children with special health care needs receive continued oral health care throughout their pre-teen years. The Health Care Authority is in the planning stages for the implementation of the expanded program.
At the federal level, the Action for Dental Health Act of 2018 was signed into law last week. The Act enables more organizations to qualify for federal grants to develop oral health prevention initiatives and programs. It also expands how grants can be used to pay for activities to overcome impediments that can prevent people from accessing oral health care. Supporters of the Act hope that the new legislation will help underserved and vulnerable communities by:
- Improving oral health education and dental disease prevention, including through community water fluoridation
- Address barriers to care, including geographic, language, cultural and other obstacles
- Establishing dental homes for children and adults
- Lowering the use of emergency department visits by expanding primary dental care access
- Promoting programs that provide oral health care to nursing home residents
“We saw significant strides toward expanding dental care access for underserved populations this year in our state, and the national Action for Dental Health Act of 2018 also is a step in the right direction,” said Diane Oakes, President and CEO of the Arcora Foundation, the foundation of Delta Dental of Washington. “But more work is needed to ensure everyone can enjoy the benefits of good oral health.”
The Action for Dental Health Act and state policies that expand dental care access in Washington are just the initial steps toward addressing oral health care access and equity issues long term. Thank you to all – Oral Health Watch coalition members, health care advocates, legislators, policymakers, engaged voters and our allies – for supporting smart investments in oral health. Together, we are working toward eradicating health disparities and ensuring that everyone can achieve good oral health.
Our first post of the new year will detail opportunities to increase access to dental care during the 2019 legislative session.