The following article  written by Sacramento Bee Columnist Steve Wiegand was published in the Sacramento Bee on Thursday, March 8, 2007. 

 

Nibbling Away at Health Care

 

Assemblymember Mary Hayashi and Colleagues Announce Dental Health Legislation at Capitol on Wednesday, March 7, 2007.

"Be true to your teeth," the legendary kids' television comic Soupy Sales was wont to observe, "and they won't be false to you."

This came to mind Wednesday during a Capitol press conference starring five legislators, a teacher and a dentist.

The topic was a bill by Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Castro Valley, and the occasion was notable for several reasons.

Of the five legislators present, for example, three were Reeps and two were Dems, an exceedingly rare sight, even in these days of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "era of post-partisanship."

The event was devoid of back-patting or name-calling.

And, most important, the subject was a health care proposal that has a great deal of merit and doesn't require the restructuring of Western civilization to accomplish.

 

The subject of which I speak is AB 834. It's a bill that takes on the biggest chronic health problem facing children -- tooth decay.

If that sounds a bit hyperbolic, it ain't. A survey of 21,000 California schoolchildren in 2005 found 71 percent had a history of tooth decay by third grade, 29 percent had decay that had gone untreated and 4 percent -- that's 840 kids -- were in pain and needed urgent dental care at the very time they were being surveyed.

Kids with dental troubles have a hard time focusing on schoolwork and often fall behind or become disruptive because of it, according to Susan Weir, a teacher at Isadore Cohen Elementary School and a 27-year veteran of Sac City Schools.

And the consequences can be a lot more dire than a failed spelling test. A 12-year-old Maryland boy died Feb. 28 of brain infections that had spread from abscessed teeth. His family lacked dental insurance and had been unable to navigate a maze of Medicare regulations to get help.

In California, a law that went into effect in January requires kids in kindergarten or first grade to get a dental exam by May 31. But the state's current $3.3 million dental prevention program covers only 300,000 kids, leaving another 1 million uncovered. Moreover, there's a $10-per-kid cap. Outside a fluoride rinse and maybe a new toothbrush, it doesn't cover much.

And while many dentists volunteer their services for initial exams at school sites, relatively few take Medi-Cal patients, since it pays only about 30 percent of normal fees.

Cynthia Weideman, a pediatric dentist in Citrus Heights for the last 18 years, said she'd rather donate tens of thousands of dollars per year in services to uninsured kids (which she does) than mess with Medi-Cal.

Hayashi's bill would basically lift the per-kid money cap, extend screening and prevention-education services to a much larger number of kids and make more use of sealants as a prevention method.

It's unclear how much it would cost. But as bill co-author Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi, R-Lodi, pointed out, "Money spent here will be saved a thousand-fold."

Evidence of that? Medical costs for the kid who died of tooth decay in Maryland topped $250,000.

While the guv and top legislative leaders flail about for a comprehensive cure-all for California's medical system shortcomings, maybe they should pay more attention to taking a step at a time -- like this bill does.

There are reasons to be optimistic on AB 834: It's for kids; it has early bipartisan support; it's the kind of preventive approach to which politicos love to give lip service.

But it does have to go through an often shortsighted Legislature and a governor more interested in hitting homers than hitting for average.

And trusting these people will do right because it's the right thing is like believing in the tooth fairy: It may be a comforting way to go to sleep but can result in a rude awakening.