Students in eight low-income Hillsborough County schools get free dental care

02/18/13 Janelle Irwin
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More than 450 students in Hillsborough County have received dental screenings and sealants at no cost to their parents. The new program helps students in eight schools with high poverty levels. It targeted 100 more kids at Bryan Elementary School in Plant City today. Randy Valdez, a dentist and director of Suncoast Community Health Centers said the program is for second graders.

“Because that’s when they’re at their prime, optimum exposure to decay so we want to cover those first molars that erupt at six, seven, eight-years of age and protect them.”

Suncoast Community Heath Centers partnered with the Hillsborough County Health Department to offer services to children at eight schools, including Bryan. The CDC estimates that as many as 51 million school hours are lost each year as a result of poor dental care. Valdez is putting sealants on teeth – mostly molars – that are most prone to decay and cavities.

“Well, first of all, due to the breakdown with the decay exposure: inability to eat, pain, infection, missing school – there are so many other implications that can be involved socially as well as just in their home life – inability to concentrate and study.”

Dental disease is more common in children than asthma.

“It is the number one childhood disease and it’s 100% preventable.”

That’s Kim Herremans, the dental health consultant for the Hillsborough County Health Department. She said the sealant fills crevices in teeth that can collect bacteria and cause problems for kids. She added the preventative treatment lasts up to ten years.

“And it really kind of gets them through their cavity-prone years where they get a little bit better brushing habits, maybe establish a better eating habits when they’re a little older.”

The program targeted students in Title I schools. That means that at least 75% of students at those schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. According to assistant principal Jarrod Haneline, Bryan Elementary is at 94%.

“Many of our families are strawberry pickers and so they’re working from sun-up until sun-down and many of them, I drive by and I see them working in the fields and they’re working hard for their families, earning the wage that they can earn and knowing that by being here they’re affording their children a better opportunity and when they send their children to us, they’re entrusting that we’re going to give our everything to these kids and every opportunity that we can so that they can have a successful future.”

Haneline said dental care is usually far from parents’ list of priorities.

“They possibly have roofs that have leaks all over them, the floors of some of their homes are rotted away and so they can only use certain part of their homes, there’s no heating, there’s no air conditioning, many times the electricity or water has been turned off. So, something like dental care is a luxury that they truly can’t afford because they’re on survival mode. They’re looking to feed their family and they’re looking to provide basic needs.”

And because the majority of students at Bryan Elementary are the children of migrant workers, they may not have access to help because of their immigration status. But Haneline said that’s not something the school looks at.

“There’s paperwork that needs to be filled out such as proof of address, but as far as looking at all that other stuff, what we’re concerned about is the child and getting them in school so that they can get an education and get the different outreach things that we can provide to them.”

Many of those students don’t have any health care coverage. Others receive government assisted healthcare called Medicaid. Even with help though, dental care still comes with a cost in many cases because of co-pays and procedures that may not be covered. Hillsborough County Health Department’s Herremans said insurance is billed if it’s available, but the dental program covers any remaining costs.

“We do have a grant from Title V – it’s a maternal and child health – that pays for any non-funded children.”

A couple of months ago, workers with the dental program started the sealant program at Bryan Elementary by teaching students about what’s going to be done to their teeth and why it’s important. Harremans said that teaching process led to more than 80% of parents consenting to treatment for their children.

“Now it works two-fold which we didn’t understand until we started this process. The kids understand what a sealant is by the time they finish the activity book, but they take it home and mom and dad understand the importance of a sealant.”

Bryan Elementary was the last school this year to benefit from the program. Herremans said the county hopes to continue next year with another 8 schools.

Kindergarten through fifth grade students in Pinellas County can also get free sealants this Friday through the Give Kids a Smile event. That program also includes x-rays, cleaning and a fluoride treatment.

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