I grew up with painful memories of visits to the dentist – and my mother was a bear about me brushing my teeth. I wasn’t even a big candy eater or soda drinker. Yet I still suffered. Today in North Carolina my experience doesn’t have to be repeated. We have basic public health strategies and techniques that are cheap, effective, and, properly applied along with parental involvement in diet and brushing habits, mean that no kid needs to suffer a cavity again.
What’s happened in the last 40 years or so? Easily applied dental sealants, fluoride mouth rinses, a statewide screening program – especially in rural areas — and a system of referral to dentists for treatment when all prevention fails. North Carolina still has a ways to go since nearly one in five kids entering kindergarten has untreated dental decay. But with near last-in-the-nation accessibility to dental services in our state, prevention preserves teeth much better than hard-to-find treatment can fix them.
Unfortunately, the entire NC public health system that has been so successful at contributing to the drop in dental disease in children in on the table for elimination during the current budget crisis. It’s just one of a long line of critical services we depend on that’s up for being cut. Just a few of the other possible cuts include closing to new kids the state’s affordable health insurance program for children of working parents, cutting teacher assistants, eliminating prosthetic devices for poor diabetics, and cutting back on services for the elderly.
Elimination of the public health system’s Oral Health Section is emblematic of many of the serious service cuts now being considered in the NC House budget. Public health programs of this sort operate largely below the radar with effects that can only be discerned over the longer term in a healthier and more productive state. The sort of cuts North Carolina is considering will fundamentally change our health care system for the worse. They will mean our commitment to improving the health and education of our people will be set back years.
The focus may be on higher-profile budget-cutting proposals like shortening the school year or drastically reducing state salaries – but cuts like elimination of our oral health program will have consequences just as far-reaching.