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Michigan lawmaker: Require dental screenings for school children

Vision and hearing are standard on the to-do list of Michigan parents whose youngsters are heading to school. Making sure their teeth get a once-over by a trained professional may soon be added as well.

House Bill 4223 would require parents to make sure their children have at least a basic dental screening before they head to school.

Representative Scott VanSingel, R-Grant, a father himself, introduced the bill in May.

VanSingel said he had dismissed a request to introduce the legislation two years ago, because it sounded like “more government spending and something parents should do, anyway.”

Related: Michigan offers free dental care to poor kids; more than 400,000 don’t use it
Related: See if your child is eligible for free Michigan dental care from Medicaid

But then he was asked: When was the last time he’d taken his daughter, then 6, to the dentist? The question surprised VanSingel. Dental care had not been the top of his mind, despite what appeared to be a bit of staining on her little teeth.

And after all, they were only baby teeth, right?

“Several thousand dollars later” at dental offices, he quipped, VanSingel realized how dental decay can spread undetected in a young mouth. Children of even the most caring parents ‒ even educated, well-resourced parents ‒ may be missing an opportunity to avoid costly, painful and bigger health problems down the road, he said.

By some estimates, more than 1 in 4 children nationally have visible cavities by their first day of school.

According to one study, an estimated 51 million school hours are lost due to dental issues each year, though that number has been questioned.  In another study, children with poor oral health were nearly 3 times more likely to miss school as a result of dental pain.

If Michigan were to require dental screening, it would join 14 other states and Washington D.C., according to a report earlier this year by the Children's Dental Health Project, a Washington-based nonprofit advocating for children's access to dental care.  

Michigan has set aside $5.2 million for vision and hearing screenings for nearly 1 million school children, according to a financial analysis by the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.

Adding a dental screening for up to 30,000 children a year who do not have Medicaid or other health insurance could add another $1.7 million to the price tag, according to the same analysis.

VanSingel’s legislation does not prescribe who will do a screening ‒ a public health department or private office visit, for example. Healthy Kids Dental, Michigan’s dental plan for children on Medicaid, covers the cost for cleanings and follow-up care for low-income children. Other parents may have private insurance.

The cost to the state would include services by public health technicians and trained dental hygienists, rather than dentists. The bill doesn’t require follow-up care, nor does it set aside funds for it.

The goal, VanSingel said, is to open initial conversations with parents about oral health as part of an overall picture of health. From that point, the parents can make the decision on what steps they’ll take.

“Just get it done. We don’t care you how you do it,” he said.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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