By PATRICK HOWARD
Capital News Service
LANSING – Recent federal approval of a dental care program’s expansion into four more West Michigan counties may be the start of a larger push to make dental care available to low-income children statewide.
The Healthy Kids Dental Program, which provides free care for Medicaid recipients under age 21, has expanded its services into Muskegon, Mason, Newaygo and Oceana counties.
Thomas Veryser, chief executive of Michigan Community Dental Clinics in Boyne City, said Muskegon County alone has 22,000 children covered by Medicaid and Oceana has 4,000 eligible for the program.
Veryser said the recent expansion of the program is a sign of bigger things to come.
He said Gov. Rick Snyder made it clear in his Health and Wellness address last September that the program was a success and could soon become a state-funded endeavor.
“Because of the positive results obtained through the Healthy Kids Dental program, the expansion to all of Michigan’s 83 counties will be given every consideration in the next budget,” Snyder said.
“Unfortunately, the program is absent from some of our most populous counties, where the greatest disparities in dental care exist,” he said.
“It’s an excellent program,” Veryser said. “When you have a governor that is able to balance the budget and create a surplus, the state is able to fund important programs like Healthy Kids.”
Veryser cites two reasons why the program is successful: the rates are high enough to let practitioners participate under Medicaid, and the program is run through Delta Dental, an Okemos-based dental insurance company to which most dentists around the state belong.
According to Delta Dental, the program is now open to children in 65 counties. It said 91 percent of dentists who treat children in these counties participate.
Sarina Gleason, a public relations officer at Delta Dental, said the program “speaks for itself” and results indicate the program has been instrumental in preventing tooth decay.
“We are truly thrilled about what Snyder had to say in his address,” Gleason said.
Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count project director at the Michigan League for Human Services, said the economic downturn has played a huge role in the program’s inability to find its way into every county.
“It costs money,” Zehnder-Merrell said. “It’s great the program is expanding. However, areas that need it most, areas like Saginaw, do not yet have the program.”
Veryser said Wayne County has 250,000 children covered by Medicaid, Oakland County has 75,000, and Macomb County has 68,000. However, these counties are currently ineligible for the program.
“All of those children would be covered if they adopted the Healthy Kids Program,” Veryser said. “The state simply hasn’t had the money to pay for it.”
Veryser said it would cost around $25 million a year to extend the program statewide.
Phil Monroy, pediatric dental director at Michigan Community Dental Clinics in Hart, said the program’s been limited by the struggling economy, but also cited the need for dental hygiene to be an integral part of health education.
Monroy said tooth decay is more prevalent than asthma, and other oral health complications can exacerbate general health problems.
Tom Kochheiser, director of public affairs at the Michigan Dental Association, said the program is also about teaching good dental habits.
“It’s important to get kids started off with good oral health,” Kochheiser said. “Hopefully it can become a habit.”
Kochheiser said the program is special because children now have a “dental home,” and more than half of children covered by Medicaid participate in the program.
State Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, along with U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, worked to expedite federal approval for its latest expansion.
According Peter Wills, a Hansen aide, “more than 40,000 Medicaid-eligible children in these four counties will now be eligible” for the program.
And Hansen said, “Securing the funds to expand the Healthy Kids Dental program to Mason, Muskegon, Newaygo and Oceana counties has been a priority of mine for many years. I’m hopeful this will encourage more dentists to participate and will help ensure that more quality care is available to those that need it most.”
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By PATRICK HOWARD