Federal funds help expand dental care for children

By BECKY McKENDRY

Capital News Service

LANSING – Smiles in Michigan will soon be a little brighter – and healthier – thanks to a recent federal grant.

The Department of Community Health will use a $1.3 million grant to expand oral health programs in Mecosta and Genesee counties. The grant is from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

In Mecosta County, the funds will expand the SEAL! Michigan program that places hygiene students in elementary and middle schools to provide sealants and dental education.

Partnering schools include dental hygiene programs at Ferris State University and the University of Michigan.

“It’s great – the program allows us to train hygiene students and provide services to children at the same time,” said Angela Minicuci of the Department of Community Health.

SEAL! Michigan offers basic dental education and care in schools with high numbers of Medicaid-eligible or low-income students, although all children are eligible to receive sealants at no cost to their families, said Minicuci.

Outreach to children is especially important, said Minicuci.

“If children create healthy habits early in life, they carry that into the rest of their life,” she said. “Preventative measures like brushing teeth and not eating sweets lead to healthier individuals overall.”

Connecting children to preventative dental care is crucial in Michigan, where there are widespread shortages of dental care, says Michele Strasz, executive director of the School-Community Health Alliance of Michigan.

“Almost anywhere in Michigan, we’ve got dental access and workforce shortages,” said Strasz. “It can be even harder in rural areas like Mecosta County where distance and transportation factor in.”

Strasz said she’d like to see the program expand to all counties. Nineteen counties in Michigan currently have at least one school participating in the program. They include Marquette, Alpena, Alcona, Ottawa, Ingham and Wayne.

“Throughout most of Michigan, there’s a need for this program,” said Strasz. “We’d, of course, love to see it get even bigger.”

The School-Community Health Alliance will evaluate the program’s expansion into Mecosta County. It will also work with dental hygiene students at U of M, Strasz said.

By working with underserved children, hygiene students get a hands-on opportunity to participate in the state’s dental workforce, said Minicuci.

“It’s critically important and incredibly valuable to get these hygiene students involved with children and out in the field,” she said.

And having them work in their communities could inspire them to stay in Michigan’s most underserved areas, said Strasz, possibly alleviating some of the dental workforce shortages facing the state.

Minicuci agreed.

“We want to make sure students have exposure in the community. And hopefully they will see who they want to serve in their own communities later on.”

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