Friday, August 16, 2013

Effort for kids' dental health in Clark, started by volunteers and continued by health department with tax, earns national award

"A community effort to fight tooth decay in children in Clark County has been named a model for the nation," veteran journalist Al Smith reports in an op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The Clark County Dental Health Initiative received the award for model practice last month at the annual conference of the National Association of City and County Health Officials, and the county health board recently raised taxes to pay for it.

"Its five-year campaign for change by volunteer dentists, hygienists and engaged citizens should inspire all Kentuckians in a state further scandalized by its own Diane Sawyer in her '20/20' program on ABC in 2009 when she showed 11 million viewers shocking scenes of Appalachian kids with disfigured teeth called Mountain Dew Mouth," writes Smith, former federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission and co-founder of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes Kentucky Health News.

The Clark County program was inspired by Winchester dentist Rankin Skinner, after he and his wife, Ruthi, had started a preventive program for poor children in Ecuador, Smith writes: "He developed a similar plan for Clark County, became its unpaid director and persuaded all 16 other Winchester dentists and 116 volunteers to apply dental fluoride varnish to children in preschool through fifth grade. Every Winchester dentist donated service and staff to take the initiative inside the schools.
Five years later the decay rate in sixth graders has dropped to 11 percent, a decline of 78 percent since 2008 when Kentucky's decay rate for children was reported in national media to be a shameful 50 percent, the country's worst."

Smith notes that the effort was boosted by "a local banker who raised money with help from the Clark County Community Foundation and First Lady Jane Beshear, who urged Gov. Steve Beshear to use the Clark initiative as an example in organizing treatment for underserved children in Eastern Kentucky." The Beshears' permanent home is in Clark County.

Volunteerism only lasts so long, but the Clark County Health Department is now funding the program with a tax increase that will let it hire the state's first public-health dental hygienist. "With continued help from the local dentists and citizen volunteers, [it hopes to] eventually extend the program to students through high school," Smith reports.

The Clark County Board of Health voted this month to raise its tax rate to 4.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value from last year's 4 cents, to generate about $150,000 in additional revenue for the program. Public Health Director Scott Lockard "estimated that funding the program would take $127,531 per year, but the board wanted a cushion in the budget to help pay for dental care for students not covered by Medicaid, KCHIP or private insurance," Rachel Gilliam reports for The Winchester Sun. Lockard told the board, “I can think of nothing better to invest in other than our children.”

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