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CHIP program serves dental needs of Ky. kids

Feb 04, 2015

While most of us remain very aware of our nation’s elected officials’ conflicting policy priorities, there is one issue that must transcend political discord: the health and well-being of our children. As parents, we fight every day to protect our children and give them the best future possible. And now it’s time for those in our nation’s capital to do the same, especially as federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is set to expire this year.

Harnessing the full potential of Kentucky’s youth begins with ensuring each and every child’s health and well-being. In order to achieve such a goal, it is imperative that, regardless of their background, Kentucky kids — and those throughout the country — have access to a comprehensive range of medical services.

Since 1997, CHIP has delivered such coverage for children from uninsured, low-income families who are not eligible for Medicaid benefits. In 2009, the program was expanded, and the results have been astounding.

Just 15 years since CHIP’s inception, coverage has grown from 2 million to 8 million kids, slashing the childhood uninsured rate in half. In Kentucky, that translates to over 84,000 kids with health coverage, with over 90 percent of eligible Kentuckians enrolled in the program — and even more parents with true peace of mind.

But in 2015 this progress could all come come to a screeching halt.

A vital element of CHIP is the inclusion of guaranteed dental coverage for children. Through the CHIP program, Kentucky kids now receive oral exams, emergency visits, X-rays and fillings at low, or even no, cost. There is a strong link between oral health and overall health, a trend I have witnessed firsthand as a dentist working with traditionally underserved populations.

Yet, Kentucky currently ranks 45th in children with untreated dental decay. And the implications are vast.

For instance, research now suggests there is a two-way relationship between diabetes and oral health. Not only do those with diabetes face greater dental concerns, but gum disease can also make diabetes harder to control. Investing in oral health early in life can help curb a disease that disproportionately affects Kentuckians, touching the lives of almost 400,000 people in our state.

CHIP not only increases the chances for better patient outcomes and more consistent care, it also makes fiscal sense for Kentucky’s health care system. In fact, the routine, preventive dental care made available to kids through the CHIP program helps curtail ER visits due to dental problems, and prevents more costly complications down the road.

Every child undoubtedly deserves access to a dentist and all of its inherent benefits. However, federal funding for CHIP is set to expire in 2015, putting thousands of young Kentuckians at risk of losing their recently acquired dental benefits, as well as overall health coverage. Yet the dental care provided by CHIP is fundamental to the health of millions of American kids. We cannot afford to pull away a healthy foundation of regular dental care from our children, particularly when, according to the CDC, we are seeing the impact of access translate into a decline in the number of young children with untreated cavities. We need to ensure continuity in the delivery of dental care services to our youth.

This is especially evident as purchasing alternative coverage through the Affordable Care Act is problematic and laden with glitches. The “family glitch” for instance judges policy affordability — and subsidies to match — for individuals, rather than families. Therefore, coverage including a parent and child may, in fact, be very unaffordable. The numbers support this, as the out-of-pocket maximum in Kentucky for CHIP enrollees is limited at $450, compared to $1,450 on an ACA plan. Cost-sharing on ACA plans is also much greater, leading to even higher out-of-pocket costs.

Put simply, Congress must reauthorize the CHIP program to ensure Kentucky children continue to receive essential dental health services. And they must act now.

Dental coverage for kids is a truly bipartisan issue. No matter the party and no matter the politics, lawmakers can agree that all children deserve access to dental care, regardless of their family’s socioeconomic situation. I urge our policymakers to reach across the aisle and make a considerable change in the lives of millions of American children by fully funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

By doing so, they make a tangible investment in the vitality of Kentucky’s next generation, and the future prominence of our great state.

Polly Boehnlein, DDS, MS, of Louisville is a board-certified pediatric dentist and managing dental director for Kool Smiles.

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