Alachua County has more than its share of licensed dentists — about a third more than the state average — state Health Department statistics show.
In spite of having 97 dentists for every 100,000 residents, though, Alachua County is falling behind the state average in the rate at which low-income county residents can get dental care, Just one-fifth of low-income county residents had access to dental care in 2010, compared with more than one-third of Floridians who received it statewide, state Health Department statistics show.
The situation is particularly dismal looking at the dental health of children, according to area dentists. Gainesville pediatric dentist Hank Silverman said he hasn’t seen the situation getting any better in his 32 years of practice, 30 of them in Gainesville, in spite of more widespread fluoridation and education about oral health.
“In the South and in rural areas around the South, there just seems to be a lower appreciation of dental health for children,” Silverman said.
For the second year in a row, the Pew Center on the States gave Florida an “F” for children’s dental care, citing particularly its worst-in-the-nation performance for ensuring access to care for low-income children.
That’s no surprise to Dr. Scott Tomar, a professor of community-based dentistry in the UF College of Dentistry. He has seen the problem borne out locally as he’s spearheaded a program to seal children’s teeth in nine Alachua County schools.
“Because there are incredibly few dentists who participate in Medicaid (the state’s insurance for low-income Floridians), children in poverty don’t have too many options for receiving preventive dental service,” Tomar said.
State records show that there are just a handful of private practice dentists accepting Medicaid, the insurance that 18,000 Alachua County children have.
Tomar said that too often dental care is seen as a luxury item and many parents don’t understand the steps needed to improve their children’s dental health, such as not putting them to bed with a bottle, for example.
But Tomar said he also faults the divide that exists between medical insurance — covering doctor visits and hospitalizations — and dental insurance.
Though dental problems can cause heart attacks, low-birth-weight babies and even death, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office estimates that 35 percent of the population lacks dental-insurance coverage. The National Association of Dental Plans estimates an even bigger problem — with about 47 percent having no dental coverage. That compares to the 15 percent of Americans who don’t have health insurance.