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Making the Case for Indian Health Service Dental Programs

Posted on April 11, 2014

WASHINGTONApril 8, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Obama Administration's proposal to fund the Indian Health Service's (IHS) Division of Oral Health for fiscal year 2015 at approximately $175 million, while adequate to maintain current programs and staff new facilities, won't address the increasing rates of oral disease in tribal areas, American Dental Association (ADA) President Dr. Charles H. Norman told members of a House panel.

"The proposed 2015 budget for the IHS dental program allows only $83 in dental care for each of the 2.1 million people served by the IHS," he said, testifying before the House Interior Subcommittee on Appropriations. "That amount doesn't even cover one dental visit a year." Dental care expenditures in the United States as a whole amounted to $353 per capita, he added.

Dr. Norman told lawmakers that tooth decay in Indian Country had reached epidemic proportions.  According to data from the Navajo nation, tooth decay is present in 48 percent of 1-year-olds and up to 94 percent of 4-year-olds. The decay rate of pre-school Navajo children is the highest in the nation. The decay rate in 4-year-olds nationally is approximately 35 percent.

While the ADA accepts that Congress is not likely to fund IHS's Division of Oral Health to the level the agency truly needs to fulfill its mission, Dr. Norman said, the ADA does urge lawmakers to appropriate an additional $4 million for projects that can have real and immediate impact, like improving dental record keeping and implementing preventive measures.

Further, he stressed the importance of reducing the amount of paperwork dentists must submit in order to volunteer in Indian Country.

Dr. Norman outlined several initiatives of the Native American Oral Health Care Project, a joint ADA-state dental society initiative to improve dental health among Native Americans. The recently launched project facilitates cooperative efforts between tribes and state dental associations in ArizonaNew MexicoNorth Dakota and South Dakota to reduce the incidence of oral disease in underserved areas.

He also explained how Community Dental Health Coordinators (CDHCs) can dramatically improve dental health education, as well as access to dental health care.  

The CDHC focuses on dental health education and disease prevention, and on connecting people with dentists, Dr. Norman said.  "They work in the communities to educate people about diet, dental hygiene and how good oral health results in better overall health.  Today, eight American Indian CDHCs are serving at 15 sites." 

"The ADA is committed to working with you, the IHS and the tribes to aggressively reduce the disparity of oral disease and to increase the level of dental care that currently exists in Indian Country," Dr. Norman told the subcommittee. He added that oral disease is preventable especially if individual and community-based prevention programs are in place, along with an oral health literacy program supporting all other efforts.