In the State of the Union, President Obama failed to address an issue of utmost importance: the health of our nation’s children. With federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) set to expire this year, this is an issue that deserves national attention.

For nearly two decades, CHIP has provided health coverage for uninsured, low-income children whose families are not eligible for Medicaid. Since the federal program’s inception and subsequent expansion, coverage has grown from two million to eight million kids under the age of 19, slashing the childhood uninsured rate in half. 

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Among CHIP’s most important provisions is guaranteed dental coverage. Across the country, children receive oral exams, emergency visits, X-rays, and fillings at little or no cost.

While often overlooked, oral health plays a significant role in a child’s development and overall wellbeing.  Research from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) reveals that tooth decay in children can lead to malnutrition, harmful infections, and poor academic performance.  According to AAPD, poor oral health can also affect a child’s self confidence, including a child’s willingness to speak, smile, and play, potentially impacting socialization and emotional health. Research suggests gum disease can also make diabetes harder to control, putting some of our nation’s most vulnerable children at even greater risk. 

Every child deserves access to quality dental care, regardless of economic resources or background.  However, finding a dentist is no easy task for low-income families.  Eighty percent of dentists do not accept patients with Medicaid or state Children’s Health Insurance Plans, according to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

As a nation, we should strive to provide first-rate dental services to all children, especially those living in underserved communities that are often overlooked.   At Kool Smiles, it is our mission to do just that.

We take great pride in serving traditionally underserved populations, including those covered through Medicaid and CHIP.  The percent of patients that qualify for public assistance varies by state but can be as high as 40 percent in states like Massachusetts.  

As a dentist providing access to quality dental care in underserved communities, I have witnessed firsthand the benefits of CHIP.  Among its many positive features, CHIP offers early oral health intervention and prevention to children who would otherwise have no access to dental care. 

Data show that early dental health produces positive, measurable results. For example, CHIP patients who see the dentist before their fourth birthday require less overall dental work in the long term.

At Kool Smiles, we’ve experienced similar outcomes.  Of the CHIP patients we saw before their fourth birthday, 34.3 percent fewer patients required restorative and extraction procedures between the ages 4 to 8 when compared to CHIP children who went without a dental visit before their fourth birthday.

Preventative dental care also leads to cost savings. Restorative costs for our CHIP patients age 4 to 8 with a dental visit before their fourth birthday were 30 percent lower than their counterparts without one.  Extraction costs for the same population were a staggering 64.9 percent lower.

As these outcomes illustrate, seeing a dentist early and often through the CHIP program is good for our patients’ health, and their families’ pockets. It’s also good for taxpayers, since access to a dentist at an early age can help reduce costly emergency room visits, health complications, and long-term costs associated with prolonged gum disease. 

While the Affordable Care Act was meant to provide children with similar health benefits, the law’s “family glitch” – which assesses policy affordability for individuals, rather than families –could force nearly two million children to lose dental coverage unless CHIP funding is extended. 

Children's Dental Health Month is this February, a time to raise both raise awareness and celebrate the benefits of oral health.  It also marks a perfect time for Congress to act on a program that makes a significant difference in the lives of millions children across the U.S. 

In the New Year, let’s resolve to press for legislation that really matters.  Let’s ensure that all kids have access to dental care and its inherent benefits.  And let’s push for a truly happier, healthier next generation of Americans.

The first step is funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program. 

Walker is the vice president of clinical quality at Kool Smiles, which provides dental services to underserved communities. He is a board-certified pediatric dentist.