Tooth Tutors is helping to fix Vermonters’ ailing teeth

Jan Demers

Ouch! I broke my tooth. Usually my dentist, who is excellent, can fill the broken area and I’m ready to go again. Not this time.

The tooth broke below the gum line and that meant oral surgery, months of healing and then a crown. The right side of my jaw is getting a workout and the left side is getting tender, loving care. I’m not eating certain foods and I think I’m losing some weight.

In perspective, this is an easy fix because I have insurance and a good income. I am privileged.

Zoe Greenberg in a New York Times article titled “Our Teeth Are Making Us Sick” says that 114 million Americans don’t have insurance coverage for their teeth.

“Experts have long observed that people’s teeth both reflect and reinforce their poverty,” The Times reports. A dentist quoted in the article sees people who tell her “they don’t want to work in the front office or talk to people because they’re too humiliated by their teeth. They fear that rotting teeth will be seen as evidence of poverty, homelessness or bad hygiene.”

Every Sunday night, working to feed those in need, I see people passing by certain fooda in our serving line because they can’t chew them or won’t try in public. Then there are those with intense pain due to infection and decay.

The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity’s Head Start program is taking a proactive role. It has partnered with its champion, Northeast Delta Dental, to offer the Tooth Tutor program.

The focus is on prevention, meeting specific individual needs and working with families for follow-up care.

When looking at the dental records for one of the Head Start children, there were seven untreated areas of decay that had been found almost a year before. With a great deal of encouragement, the family scheduled an exam. Of 20 baby teeth, 16 had decay. Of these, two were likely to require extraction, one a root canal, and five crowns.

This family was significantly distrustful of the dental office and general anesthesia. Tooth Tutors and staff offered to schedule and attend appointments and provided information about the health risks to untreated decay. The child had surgery and all dental concerns were treated.

It took almost the entire Head Start year, but the result was a changed life and great pain relief for this little one.

Last year, recognizing the great need for dental services, the Vermont Legislature passed S.20, establishing a new profession of dental therapist to increase access for Vermonter’s oral health care, especially in areas with a significant volume of patients who have a low income, are uninsured or underserved.

Dental therapists will be regulated by the Board of Dental Examiners within the Office of Professional Regulation. A dental therapist will be able to perform a limited number of dental services and will be required to practice under a dentist’s general supervision.

Actress Mae West said, “Love conquers all except poverty and a toothache.” It is worth the effort to find health and healing for both. That is the Vermont way.

Jan Demers is executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

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