Op-ed: Comprehensive care for all Illinoisans must include oral care

Aug 19, 2019 | Newsroom

This op-ed was originally published in the Springfield State Journal-Register.

By John Maples and Joseph Dill

With our world-class hospitals, med-tech incubators, and numerous research facilities, Illinois has long been a hub for health care innovation. Despite this, a significant percentage of our state’s population has not benefited from the great strides we’ve made to help improve the overall health and well-being of Illinoisans. Because of this disparity, in November, Gov. JB Pritzker formed the Healthy Children and Families Committee to identify policies to expand access to comprehensive, quality health care.

While we applaud the governor’s efforts, unfortunately the committee’s scope of work did not include one of the most critical aspects of overall health — oral health. Moving forward, we call upon Governor Pritzker and other Illinois policymakers to ensure oral health is a key component of any comprehensive health care policy recommendations.

In all phases of life, the connection between oral health and overall health is clear. Just last week the Delta Dental Institute, a national organization dedicated to putting a new spotlight on oral health, convened health care, business and policy leaders to discuss how to expand access to comprehensive care in Illinois — including oral care for all ages.

In our state, we recognize that access to quality oral health care must start early. However, nearly one-in-three children in Illinois won’t visit a dentist before the age of five. Untreated childhood oral health problems can result in challenges with eating, speaking, and learning — issues that can last long into adulthood. The good news: childhood dental disease is largely preventable through regular dental check-ups. In fact, our state passed a new law last November requiring students entering high school to show a record of a recent dental appointment.

While it is imperative children visit a dentist starting with the growth of their first tooth, we cannot forget access to oral health care remains important in adulthood. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, the mouth is a window to the rest of your body’s health. Poor oral health can exacerbate other grave health conditions, like heart disease or diabetes. In Illinois, nearly 2.5 million people live with some form of untreated tooth decay, affecting their ability to live, work, and play. And it’s not because they don’t want to treat it: 42% of Illinois adults would like to visit the dentist more often but are unable to do so due to cost or lack of providers. Health care in our state must be comprehensive, and we believe that we can work with policymakers to close the access gap.

We also can’t forget about Illinoisans in their golden years. Currently, Illinois lags behind in our dental care offerings for seniors, ranking 16th in the nation. Nearly 17% of Illinoisans 65 and older have lost teeth due to tooth decay or gum disease, both preventable oral health issues. As more Illinoisans age into Medicare, expanded access to preventive care now could reduce health care costs down the road. In fact, nine-in-ten Illinoisans say that dental benefits should be included in Medicaid. Across our state, Illinoisans agree that our policymakers need to prioritize access to dental care in the same way they do for general medical and mental health care for Illinois’ seniors.

Whatever our age, good health starts with good oral health. We thank Governor Pritzker for prioritizing access to health care for people across Illinois. But in order to help Illinoisans meet their full potential for a healthy and happy life, the governor and other Illinois lawmakers must include expanded access to quality oral health care in their policy recommendations.

John Maples is president and Chief Executive Officer of Delta Dental of Illinois. Dr. Joseph Dill is head of Dental Science at the Delta Dental Institute.