In November, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the elimination of the Oral Health Program. After April 30, under his current proposal, the city will no longer provide dental care to thousands of underserved children. Already, the city Health Department is auctioning off equipment that costs thousands of dollars for $250 each.
Despite urging from unions and private organizations, such as the state Dental Association, the mayor has refused to restore funding to this program. It delivers a full range of dental care to children throughout the city, many of whom have never seen a dentist before.
Dental disease is the most prevalent disease among the city’s children, but the most preventable and costâˆ’effective to treat. The entire program costs the city $2.6 million and serves over 17,000 students. Reaching these children early is critical because oral health affects overall systemic health in important ways.
Links have been found between dental health and cardioâˆ’vascular disease, premature birth and low birth rate, diabetes, respiratory disease, HIVâ„AIDS, osteoporosis and cancer. Spending a little now to provide care at an early age and teaching children proper dental hygiene can help offset serious future medical problems that could cost the city more.
While the mayor claims these children can be transitioned to Medicaid, this idea has little merit based on Medicaid’s previous performance in providing dental services to children. According to a September 2008 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, dental disease remains a significant problem for children and adults ages 2 to 18 in Medicaid. A national survey indicated only one in three under Medicaid ages 2 to 18 received dental care the previous year.
Moreover, only 18 percent of state dentists accept Medicaid, further reducing the chances that Medicaidâˆ’qualified children will receive care. Also, the city Health and Hospitals Corp.’s dental facilities are at capacity and patients are forced to wait months before they can see a dentist. As a result, many will wait until the dental problem becomes serious and then go to a hospital emergency room.
The budget for the Oral Health Program is included in the $90 million allocated to the Health Department for “health promotion and disease prevention.” While this allocation has produced some powerful marketing campaigns, money would be better spent directly on our children. It makes sense to cut advertising now and reinstate it when times get better rather than permanently cut a 103âˆ’yearâˆ’oldâˆ’program that is vital to the health and happiness of our children.
This year, we face one of the most difficult budget seasons in recent memory. The economic meltdown has hit our city hard, with revenues from Wall Street nearly nonâˆ’existent and more people than ever needing help. Elected officials have many difficult decisions to make over the next few months, as there is simply not enough revenue for all the things we want to do.
Although these times may be difficult, we can navigate them with sound leadership and sensible decisionâˆ’making. Cutting the Oral Health Program is a foolish choice at a time when we need wisdom the most.