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Sunday, June 4, 2023

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Adult Medicaid dental coverage has positive impacts on dental care in children of low-income families. Above, a father and son brush their teeth together. Adult Medicaid dental coverage has positive impacts on dental care in children of low-income families. Above, a father and son brush their teeth together.

Brushing Up On Adult Dental Coverage and Kids' Cavities

Parental benefits such as Medi-Cal provide proven benefits to children, just not right away.
By Peggy Pico

Remember that time you first realized you had a cavity?  Perhaps it was the reflexive jaw slap after a risky bite of ice cream, or maybe it was the unrelenting bad breath or persistent pain that immediately catapulted you into a dentist’s chair.  

Landing an urgent dental visit isn’t easy — especially for children with public health insurance like Medi-Cal.  All states, including California, cover dental benefits for publicly insured children, yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that tooth decay remains one of the most common chronic childhood diseases in the U.S. According to the CDC’s Children’s Oral Health Index:  

  • One of every five  (20%)  children ages 5 to 11 have at least one untreated decayed tooth, and so do 13% of  those between 12 and  19.
  • All youth up to age 19 from low-income families are twice as likely to have untreated cavities compared with children from higher-income households.  

Understandably, pain and other symptoms from cavities and poor oral health may lead to more school absences and lower grades, explains Brandy Lipton, an assistant professor in SDSU’s School of Public Health.  

“Research suggests that good oral health in children may improve school performance and have a major and lasting impact on overall health, medical expenses, and quality of life through adulthood,” said Lipton.

Lipton drilled down further on the association between adult Medicaid dental coverage and oral health outcomes in children of low-income families in a comprehensive study published in Health Affairs, which describes a surprising finding: a lag time of one to two years from the onset of parental dental benefits to improved oral health care outcomes in their children.

“A key finding from this study is that adult dental coverage does improve oral health outcomes among children in low-income families, but it takes some time to increase dental care visits and improve oral health,” explained Lipton.

“Non-cost barriers like oral health literacy, access to transportation, or taking time off from work for a dental visit could be contributing factors to the lag time,” she said.

Analyzing 18 years of data across the U.S. that detailed thousands of kids’ dental visits, untreated cavities, and oral health observations from their parents,  Lipton’s research team found a significant improvement in treatment for cavities in children with parental dental benefits in low-income households.

“Based on analysis of existing research, offering adult dental coverage through Medicaid may have long-lasting health impacts on children whose parents gain benefits,” said Lipton.   

Lipton’s research focuses on healthcare policy and its influences on low-income populations.

Collaborators in this study include Tracy Finlayson, professor of health management and policy, and Mingan Yang, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, both from the School of Public Health, and external collaborators Sandra Decker (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality) and Richard Manski (University of Maryland, Baltimore).

The study received funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research of the National Institutes of Health