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Alaska gets high marks for dental prevention programs

Posted: May 23, 2011 - 9:54pm  |  Updated: May 27, 2011 - 2:25am

A new report has found Alaska is doing well in providing dental care for children, but challenges remain.

The Pew Center on the States report released today gives Alaska a grade of ‘A’ for efforts to provide children with not just access to dental care, but getting them to use that care.

One way to do that was to boost reimbursement rates for those covered by Medicaid, said State Dental Officer Brad Whistler.

The Department of Health and Social Services worked with the Legislature to improve reimbursement rates, but the Medicaid payments remain lower than other payments, he said.

“Typically, it’s still less than what dentists would get with private dental insurance,” he said.

Whistler said the idea was to encourage more dental visits, and the Pew study found Alaska used a broad effort to improve dental health and access for children.

Alaska was one of only seven states getting the top ranking by meeting six of eight key benchmarks.

Alaska in the last year began paying medical providers for early preventative care.

Alaska slightly exceeds the percentage of Medicaid-enrolled children getting dental care, and significantly exceeded the percentage of dental bills that were reimbursed by Medicaid.

A big boost to the state’s efforts came when tribal health corporation dental therapists, working under the general supervision of dentists, were determined to be able to provide dental care in hard-to-reach areas of Alaska, Whistler said.

“Dental needs are a common need among low-income children,” he said.

Among the things the dental therapists were able to do included applying sealants, plastic coatings that protect tooth services and prevent decay.

Whistler said the way Alaska was measured boosted its rankings in that benchmark. Pew counted the number of high-risk schools in which sealant programs were available. The tribal program dental providers covering large numbers of tiny schools boosted Alaska’s percentage there.

The percentage of low-income children receiving dental services has been climbing gradually since 2000, when 37.1 percent received dental care, compared to 42.0 percent in 2009, the last year for which information is available, Pew said.

One area in which Alaska failed to meet the national standard, and isn’t likely to improve, Whistler said, is in fluoridating water.

“We’ve been losing ground on water fluoridation,” he said.

Juneau a few years ago stopped fluoridating its water — over the objection of dentists — and Fairbanks is likely to soon drop it as well.

The share of Alaska residents with fluoridated community water supplies is already below the national average, and Whistler said he doesn’t see that changing.

Dentists providing fluoride treatments can make up some of the loss, he said.

“It doesn’t completely offset water fluoridation, but it is another targeted approach in reducing dental decay in children,” he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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