Dentists are a critical piece of the school success equation
By: Tom Seigel, Bethel School District Superintendent, and Jeff Reynolds, Community Health Care Dental Director
Our state Legislature could give thousands of students in the Bethel School District something to smile about. The school district has teamed up with Community Health Care to ask the Legislature to invest in a new dental clinic directly across the street from the Bethel School District campus, which houses Shining Mountain Elementary School, Bethel Middle School
A shocking 56 percent of students in the district have poor oral hygiene, as identified in a screening conducted by the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department and Community Health Care in 2016. One 8-year-old girl’s oral screening exam revealed several seriously decayed teeth. Her school nurse noted that she was homeless, and her parent was difficult to reach. It’s heartbreaking to think that the only safe home she has is at school. She’s among many children in the district whose health needs aren’t being met.
The Bethel School District is the 16th largest district in the state, with more than 19,000 students, and thousands of them are not getting the dental care they need. Oral health is an essential part of a child’s total physical well-being, but tooth decay has become the single most common chronic childhood disease—five times more common than asthma. Surveys show that children in America miss nearly 52 million hours of school each year because of dental problems.
Most of the school district’s area is unincorporated, with very few safety net services within its boundaries. With Community Health Care’s Spanaway Medical and Dental Clinic operating at full capacity, people in the area have very few options for dental care, particularly if they’re on Medicaid or uninsured. Families desperate for care sometimes resort to taking out third-party loans with interest rates as high as 26 percent to pay cash at private dental practices. Their other expensive option is the emergency room.
The new dental clinic would change all that for Bethel students and their families. It will provide 7,000 oral health appointments to at least 2,700 new patients in the first year, including teachers and others living in the area. Patients who come for dental care will also have access to medical care, behavioral health care, substance abuse services, chronic disease management, and insurance enrollment assistance. These services will be provided to all patients regardless of whether or not they have insurance.
Last year the state made a historic commitment to increase dental care in low income and underserved communities. The investment made a dent in the problem, but places like Spanaway and Southeast Pierce County still have huge unmet need.
This clinic is part of a statewide request from community health centers to fund new dental clinics and dental clinic expansions to serve over 45,000 new patients per year. Only 22.5 percent of Apple Health-insured dental patients were able to visit a dental office in 2017, and people without dental coverage are struggling even more.
Our school district and community health center teamed up to address this problem. We urge our legislators to get on board to make it a reality.