Three out of four Alabamians favor spending state funds to put more dentists in county health clinics so poor children can receive adequate dental care, according to a new Mobile Register-University of South Alabama poll.
“That’s a beautiful figure,” said Burt Edelstein, director of the Children’s Dental Health Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
U.S. Surgeon General David Hatcher issued a report this summer which noted that a “silent epidemic” of oral disease exists among poor children, the elderly and other groups that don’t have ready access to dental care.
In Alabama, dentists are in short supply and the number of dentists who treat children covered by Medicaid – the government health insurance program for the poor – is low.
The Register/USA poll was taken Dec. 4-7 and sought to elicit information about Alabamians’ experience with dental care and their support for expanding care among the poor.
The survey found backing not only for adding dentists to county health clinics but also for creating a state loan forgiveness program for new dental school graduates willing to locate in under-served rural areas and treat children covered by Medicaid.
Other states, including Texas, have started such a program. Eighty percent of those surveyed would like to see Alabama follow suit.
“I was pleased to see that loan forgiveness idea got such a high rate of support” in the poll, said Mary Weidler, a policy analyst for Montgomery-based Alabama Arise, which lobbies on behalf of the poor and has made dental care one of its priorities of late.
The survey also found that 68 percent of Alabamians favor letting dental hygienists work on their own in nursing homes and schools, cleaning teeth and flagging cases needing immediate attention of a dentist.
Alabama is among those states that won’t let hygienists practice unless a supervising dentist is on the premises.
Christine Foley, a dental hygienist with the Jefferson County Health Department, said the support for letting hygienists practice outside a dentist’s office may be a matter of self-interest. “The population is getting older, and people are keeping their teeth longer,” she said. “People know they’re going to want care if they’re in a nursing facility or whatever.”
Nearly half of the people polled said they visit the dentist twice a year. But 18 percent said they don’t regularly get checkups. A demographic breakdown of results showed that people making under $20,000 a year were twice as likely not to get checkups as those making from $20,000 to $60,000.
Thirty-five percent of those surveyed reported having no dental insurance coverage. The national figure of those not having dental insurance is about five points higher, Edelstein said.
A significant minority – 28 percent – said they seldom or never got dental care as a child. But the demographic breakdown showed that older Alabamians were far more likely to have had little or no dental care as a child than young adult respondents.
Forty-two percent of those surveyed said that as adults they have put off getting dental care at least once because of cost. Among lower-income Alabamians, 57 percent had postponed care for that reason.
“That shows this is a money issue for a lot of people,” Weidler said.
The telephone survey contacted 407 adult residents of Alabama. USA Polling Group, which conducted the survey, put the margin of error at plus or minus 5 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. This means that there is a 95 percent probability that the results are within 5 percentage points of the results that would have been obtained from a survey of the entire population of the state of Alabama.