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Thanks to the Healthy Kids Dental (HKD) program, Michigan currently is providing essential dental care to 550,000 children in 80 of Michigan’s 83 counties.

Now, thanks to Gov. Rick Snyder’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposal, Michigan’s most populous county, Wayne, also will be able to offer dental care to eligible low-income children. Eligible children up to age 8 can participate under the plan. The same goes for children up to age 8 in the only other two counties not covered by HKD: Kent and Oakland. That means an additional 210,000 children could get dental services.

HKD was created 15 years ago by the Michigan Department of Community Health in partnership with Delta Dental of Michigan. Based on studies affirming its effectiveness in improving access to dental care, Michigan governors and lawmakers have expanded the program several times.

Preventive and regular dental care is as essential to a child’s overall health as is medical, vision and hearing care. Tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease in America, affecting 50 percent of first-graders and 80 percent of 17-year-olds. According to the National Association of Dental Plans, adults and children without dental coverage are 2.5 times less likely to visit the dentist than those with insurance. In addition, reports show that children miss 51 million hours of school each year because of oral health issues. Increasing access to dental care produces healthier children who are more likely to succeed in school and life.

The U.S. surgeon general has called oral disease a “silent epidemic,” which makes February’s National Children’s Dental Health Month an appropriate time to shine a light on this serious health problem. It’s also an opportunity to recognize the good policies Michigan has implemented to improve dental health for children and adults alike — and to underscore that more must be done.

First, we need to require dental screening for all children entering kindergarten. For more than 60 years, Michigan children entering kindergarten have been required to have their vision and hearing checked. A dental screening is not required — even though 1 in 4 Michigan third-graders have untreated dental disease, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health. By screening the 130,000 kids who start kindergarten in Michigan each year, we can catch oral disease before it causes serious problems and avoid health issues that may impact children’s learning and school attendance.

We also need to focus on improving oral health literacy for all in Michigan. Other states have taken the lead in developing oral health curricula that focuses on the importance of good oral health and its role in overall health. We shouldn’t let Michigan fall behind.

Education doesn’t stop with children — that’s why Delta Dental of Michigan is actively working to increase awareness of just how important oral health is to all Michigan citizens through our Brighter Futures initiative. Learn more at brighterfuturesmi.com.

There’s nothing better than seeing a child look up at you with a healthy, beautiful smile. Children’s oral health can and should be a priority in Wayne County and statewide.

Laura Czelada, CPA, is president and chief executive officer of Delta Dental of Michigan.

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