Op-ed: Tennessee Dental Safety Net ensures all citizens stay smiling

Sep 9, 2019 | Newsroom

This op-ed was originally published in The Tennessean.

By Phil Wenk and Joseph Dill

A job interview, applying for a loan, or simply meeting someone for the first time—no matter where you go, a healthy smile matters. Lack of access to oral health care in rural and low-income communities has left thousands of Tennesseans at a significant disadvantage and heightened overall health risks, and crucial programs such as the Tennessee Dental Safety Net are in jeopardy of losing necessary funding without decisive government action.

Along with serious implications for overall health and chronic disease management, poor oral health can lead to trouble with relationships, difficulty finding work, and a lower overall standard of living. According to research by the American Dental Association, 45% of low-income adults say they avoid smiling, and 68% say they sometimes find life in general less satisfying due to the condition of their mouths and teeth.

Oral health issues are also linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes complications, and recent studies have found connections between gum disease and Alzheimer's. It's an unfortunate reality for the thousands of Tennesseans who do not have dental coverage or live in an area with no accessible dental clinics.

What the safety net provides

Tennessee established one of the first dental public health programs in the U.S. in 1935, but now it is one of only three states that do not provide dental benefits through Medicaid and Medicare programs for adults. For those 450,000+ Tennesseans who are left uninsured, the Tennessee Dental Safety Net is a saving grace, helping thousands receive emergency oral health care and restore their smiles, enhancing their quality of life. Last week, the Delta Dental Institute convened more than 25 leaders in Nashville to address these statistics, from CEOs of major healthcare companies to directors of charitable clinics.

Despite those differing backgrounds, there was a consensus on the need to put pen to paper and support the programs that are proven to work for the many patients who fall through the cracks in the system.

Giving all Tennesseans access to dental

In 2018, Tennessee's charitable and reduced-cost dental clinics provided more than 34,600 procedures to patients who may otherwise not have received care. These clinics have helped people such as Greg in Nashville, who would always take behind-the-scenes jobs that isolated him from others because he was ashamed of his smile.

With help from the Tennessee Dental Safety Net’s Denture Program, he gained the confidence to interact with people face-to-face and live free from judgment—aspects of everyday life that so many of us take for granted. As Greg said after he got his new smile at a price he could afford, "The word that always comes to mind is dignity…Interfaith [Charitable Dental Clinic] truly changed my life."

State funding allows clinics like Interfaith Dental to offer restorative dental care to Tennesseans who are uninsured and living below 200 percent of the poverty threshold, giving them access to essential services at little or no cost. The state legislature allocated $750,000 to continue this program in the 2019/2020 fiscal year, but those funds must be renewed annually.

Governor Bill Lee has called for allocating increased funds toward non-profit community centers and charity-based clinics, which are crucial providers of quality health care all can afford. This program, administered by Delta Dental of Tennessee’s Smile 180 Foundation at no cost to the State, is a prime example of a successful collaborative effort to improve the health of Tennesseans.

Improving overall health requires dedicated attention to oral health, which is deeply linked to chronic disease management, better nutrition, and strong mental health. A healthy smile gives people a better chance to get that job or that promotion, and to have a better life.  That’s why it is crucial for our state's leaders to put this important program on solid ground and commit recurring funds to giving every Tennessean a healthy smile and a confident future.

Dr. Phil Wenk is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Delta Dental of Tennessee. Dr. Joseph Dill is the Head of Dental Science at the Delta Dental Institute.