AUGUSTA – Passage earlier this month of a proposal that I sponsored, L.D. 1105, “Resolve, To Study Oral Health Care in Maine and Make Recommendations Regarding How To Address Maine’s Oral Health Care Needs,” is a very small step forward to help Maine face a very big challenge.

Access to oral health care has an extraordinary impact on the overall health of an individual. It is indisputable that oral health directly affects physical health.

Numerous diseases such as incidence of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease are directly linked to gum disease. Just as importantly, self-esteem, cognitive development and economic performance can also be impacted by oral health.

Kids miss school, adults miss work, nutrition is impacted, and health suffers. Lack of good oral health is a major problem faced not only by Maine, but the nation.

You only have to go door-to-door once to hear a story you wish you hadn’t. Horrific stories about actions taken by individuals to address the pain they suffer from oral disease. The numbers are staggering.

More than 46 percent of MaineCare kids don’t have access to oral health care.

Dental decay continues to be the single most common chronic disease of childhood. It’s five times more common than asthma.

More than 20 percent of Maine third-graders have untreated cavities.

Each of Maine’s 16 counties has a federally designated oral health shortage area.

About 40 percent of practicing dentists are older than 55.

Dental pain and infection is one of the top five avoidable Emergency Department visits.

Some estimates suggest nearly 250,000 Mainers, around one in five, don’t have a dentist.

Similar studies suggest 60,000-70,000 kids don’t have a dentist.

Who suffers from lack of dental care? People in rural Maine, low-income people, seniors and veterans, and many others.

These staggering facts don’t mean that Maine dentists fail to do their part. Indeed, Maine dentists do more than many of their counterparts in the region and around the country.

Maine has also been a national leader in innovation. Primary-care practices have been trained in the application of fluoride varnish and providing direct oral health care in physician’s offices.

Wonderful school programs exist such as From the First Tooth and the Kids Oral Health Partnership, which uses multiple providers to provide services to children who might not otherwise be seen.

Maine has amended its laws and enhanced dental care with the creation of Independent Practice Dental Hygienists and Expanded Function Dental Auxiliaries. The people of Maine have stepped to the plate, endorsing a $5 million bond to start a dental school in Maine. In addition, nearly 80 percent of public water supplies are fluoridated.

So, why did we need L.D. 1105? We need it now because we still have huge gaps in our ability to provide coverage, and we have been trying to be good stewards of the public health for some time. Too many parties cite conflicting reports with conflicting numbers.

We need to establish an objective set of facts that will tell us how recent changes in law have impacted, and will impact, care in the future. Without good facts, we cannot make good policy. This legislation will allow us to take that step with the help of private funders and thorough independent, objective analysis.

With the help of this study, we hope to better understand who needs care, what changes need to be made to clear away barriers, and whether there are effective models in other states or countries that can be replicated to address those needs.

– Special to the Press Herald