New report reveals depth of dental care inequities

Illinois’ poor and rural populations—and especially children—suffering from lack of access to critically needed care

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Poor oral health is one of the most pressing, unmet health care issues facing Illinois children and adults. This is according to a new state oral health assessment report, Oral Health in Illinois, which is the first comprehensive statewide oral health assessment ever completed.

Tooth decay, dubbed “America’s silent epidemic” by the U.S. Surgeon General, disproportionately affects poor and rural residents of the state according to the findings released by the report sponsors, the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation, Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation and Michael Reese Health Trust.

The report finds that untreated cavities and other oral health problems are prevalent among children in Illinois, particularly for those living in poverty and rural areas. One third of children in rural areas have untreated tooth decay. Illinois children living in poverty are five times more likely to have fair or poor oral health. And just over half (55 percent) of children on Medicaid even saw a dentist in the previous year.

“Far too many children in Illinois don’t receive the dental care they need,” said Heather Alderman, president of the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation. “Untreated tooth decay can affect children’s diet, sleep and ability to learn. This situation is unconscionable when you consider how treatable and preventable these diseases are.”

The report found that 2.48 million adults in Illinois have untreated tooth decay, putting them at risk for tooth loss. A full 25 percent of low-income seniors in Illinois have no remaining teeth.

“Given the importance of oral health, we are hoping that the findings of this report help policymakers see the real challenges our state faces,” said Gayla Brockman, President and CEO of the Michael Reese Health Trust.

“We need to make policy changes that will improve access to oral health treatment, especially for our severely underserved low-income and rural populations.”

The report’s sponsors are unveiling a new website, oralhealthillinois.org, to document their findings and raise awareness about oral health challenges in Illinois. The website became active on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016.

The Oral Health in Illinois report is the result of research conducted by the Sinai Urban Health Institute, the research arm of Sinai Health System, and Rob Paral & Associates.

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