It’s time to close gaps in children’s access to oral health services in Medi-Cal
By Fatima Clark
December 7, 2021
Image via iStock by artist LaylaBird
Oral health is an essential part of children’s overall health and well-being. Just like routine medical check-ups, it’s critical that kids also have yearly check-ups with their dentist.
However, recent data from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services highlights that dental care visits for kids are down by 24% compared to pre-pandemic levels – that’s 12.6 million fewer visits to the dentist, nationally. California data also show that fewer kids in our state are accessing care compared to 2019: 44% overall dental utilization in 2020 vs. 56% in 2019. It’s important to address delayed dental care because unmet oral health needs can negatively affect a child’s overall health and well-being in the short and long term. In fact, unmet dental needs can impact every aspect of kids’ lives, including eating, speech, sleep, social development, mental health, and even academic life due to missed school days.
It may come as a surprise, but cavities – which are largely preventable with routine dental care – remain the most common chronic childhood disease. In California, more than 60% of students have experienced tooth decay by 3rd grade and there are wide disparities based on race/ethnicity, income, and language with the highest prevalence of tooth decay seen among Latinx kids (72%), children in low-income families (72.3%), and children in households where Spanish is the primary language (77.9%). Inequitable access to providers, interpretation and translation services, reliable and efficient transportation, and paid time-off are among the many factors that can limit families’ ability to get routine care for their kids. Studies also show children who have poor oral health often miss more school and receive lower grades than children who do not, which can also contribute to educational disparities.
More than 5.2 million California kids have dental coverage through Medi-Cal, yet many of their parents are not aware of the free dental services available to them, such as preventive services—sealants and fluoride varnish—that guard against decay. Educating families and supporting them in getting routine dental care for their kids is one key way that organizations, such as schools and medical sites, can help close gaps in children’s oral health care.
As California continues to adjust to the latest stage of the pandemic, an “all hands on deck” approach will be needed to connect kids to health care services that have been largely delayed and still have not rebounded. Community organizations, doctors, educators, and advocates can visit the Smile, California campaign website (SmileCalifornia.org or SonrieCalifornia.org) to access a multitude of free, downloadable resources (e.g., flyers, videos, find a dentist tool, fotonovelas, social media content, etc.) in various languages to help connect families and kids to oral health care.
For more information, visit SmileCalifornia.org or SonrieCalifornia.org or complete this form to request free materials.
 Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Medicaid and CHIP and the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Preliminary Medicaid and CHIP Data Snapshot Services through May 31, 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.medicaid.gov/state-resource-center/downloads/covid19-data-snapshot-11122021.pdf
 Department of Health Care Services. Medi-Cal Dental Services Division Statewide Fact Sheet (August 2021) https://www.dhcs.ca.gov/provgovpart/denti-cal/Documents/Statewide-Fact-Sheet-Aug2021.pdf
 California Office of Oral Health. Oral Health Status of Children: Results of the 2018–2019 California Third Grade Smile Survey. Retrieved from: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/DCDIC/CDCB/CDPH%20Document%20Library/Oral%20Health%20Program/California_2019_3rd_Grade_Smile_Survey_20210730.pdf
 Griffin SO, Wei L, Gooch BF, Weno K, Espinoza L. Vital Signs: Dental Sealant Use and Untreated Tooth Decay Among U.S. School-Aged Children. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2016;65:1141-1145
Overview of dental benefits in Medi-Cal (in Chinese)
Dental Care Reminder Sheet for Primary Care Providers to Remind Patients to Seek Dental Care