Dr. Chris Urbina and Kate Paul: Making progress

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A year ago, public health leaders across the state pledged to improve the oral health of Coloradans.

Recognizing that dental disease directly impacts the economic health of our state — costing nearly $1 billion annually — and is nearly 100 percent preventable, Gov. John Hickenlooper named oral health one of the state’s top three “Winnable Battles.”

At the same time, Delta Dental of Colorado joined the battle with a new fund offering two years of free dental insurance for the state’s at-risk populations. We have seen progress worth celebrating.

According to the 2011-12 Children’s Oral Health Basic Screening Survey, approximately 48 percent fewer kindergartners, and 46 percent fewer third-graders, have untreated decay compared to 2004. That means about 8,600 kindergarten and 7,800 third-grade students no longer have to endure painful toothaches, missed school days and poorer academic performance that often stems from untreated tooth decay.  

During that same time, the state saw a 29 percent increase in the number of third-graders with dental sealants. That’s about 6,400 more children with less risk of tooth decay.  

Despite these promising signs, significant challenges remain. While the greatest gains in reducing tooth decay came from children in low-income households, these children still are twice as likely as children from higher-income households to suffer from untreated tooth decay.

More than 2 million Coloradans lacked dental insurance in 2011, a 17 percent increase from three years ago, according to a recent Colorado Trust report. This is significant because those with dental insurance are twice as likely to regularly see a dentist.

Response to the Delta Dental of Colorado Fund is a testament to the challenge we face. The fund reached capacity within months of its launch and already has covered more than $2 million in dental care. In Steamboat Springs, almost 30 claims were submitted under the fund during its first year.

Not surprisingly, restorative treatments — including fillings and tooth extractions — constitute the largest category of care. These services alleviate debilitating pain and put patients on a path to preventative treatment.

Fund enrollees are gaining access to care that leads to healthier smiles, which can have a significant positive impact on their lives.

Colorado’s oral health community is committed to fighting dental disease, by building a strong public infrastructure, educating the public, improving access to care and fostering communities that create conditions to make the right choice the easy choice.

Working together, oral health is a battle we can win.

Dr. Chris Urbina and Kate Paul

Dr. Chris Urbina is the executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Kate Paul is president and chief executive officer of Delta Dental of Colorado.

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