Kim Herremans: Dental care access for those who need it most — our kids

group of happy people holding a picture of a mouth smiling on a
Good oral health is important to our kids’ health, happiness, education and future.

When it comes to the oral health of kids, Florida is one of the worst in the nation. One in five children in Florida suffer from treatable dental problems. Florida is sixth in the nation for third grade children with active untreated tooth decay.

Dental problems in children have a real impact on their education. Studies show that poor oral health in children is linked to poor performance in school. Yet schools can be a part of the solution.

Right here in Hillsborough County, we’re bringing dental care directly to the schools. Through the Hillsborough County School Districts’ dental sealant program, we’re focusing on early intervention and prevention to foster good dental health.

Now, a new bill in the Florida Legislature will help this program be even more accessible and impactful when it comes to promoting good dental health among Florida’s children. HB 997 filed by Rep. Melony Bell and SB 1444 filed by Sen. Jason Brodeur will enable us to provide care at more locations, provide more services at these locations and increase the workforce of dental hygienists trained and available to provide the care.

The Hillsborough County School Districts dental sealant program is serviced by both Suncoast and Tampa Family Health Centers with their fleet of dental buses that are designed to bring a dental office with their team and equipment to area schools to provide dental care — to places where dental care is sorely needed.

The dental buses visit more than 100 elementary schools in Hillsborough County each year. On-site, licensed dental hygienists conduct dental screenings, apply dental sealants and educate students about how to care for their teeth and prevent dental problems. The services are free to every child whose parents provide consent.

We started this program more than 10 years ago, and what we’ve found is alarming. Untreated tooth decay among students in Hillsborough County is even worse than what we expected. More than 50% of the students screened as part of the program were suffering from untreated tooth decay. That’s double the rate of students across Florida and four times the national average.

These same students — who are often in pain — will likely require a filling to maintain a healthy and functional tooth. Visiting a dentist’s office requires transportation, time out of school for the student and more often time away from work for the parent. If the family does not have dental care coverage, the visit to the dentist can be costly, too.

Left untreated, dental problems in a student can lead to many more challenges beyond suffering from tooth pain and the inability to chew and stay in school. Poor dental health is at the root of more serious and more costly health conditions. Patients with serious dental conditions are 25% more likely to suffer from heart disease and challenges with diabetes.

To reverse this growing problem and provide the dental care our students need and deserve, we must increase access to dental care in Florida.

The proposed legislation — HB 997 by Bell and SB 1444 by Brodeur — increases the locations eligible for dental buses to provide care. If passed, we can bring care to more than just schools, but also programs run by, nonprofit community health centers, Head Start centers and other school-based prevention programs, among others.

The bills also expand the services that can be provided by dental hygienists in mobile settings like our buses. Under this legislation, dental hygienists may apply temporary therapeutic fillings to prevent the progression of decay only in health access settings, while a child waits to see the dentist. Dental hygienists are already authorized to place and remove temporary fillings and dental sealants in private dental offices this updates the locations where they can perform these actions so that patients can get the care they need in mobile settings.

The bills eliminate the requirement for children to have an exam by a dentist within a year after they have had a cleaning in a health access setting, in order to have another cleaning. Regrettably, many children cannot see a dentist for an exam due to lack of access and cost. At the very least, the cleanings should be allowed to continue so children can learn about good oral care and be encouraged to see a dentist at least annually, which then stops the dental hygienist from doing another preventive cleaning. With this legislation, we’re breaking down the barriers to the care of young teeth.

The bills will also strengthen Florida’s workforce by eliminating unnecessary burdens on hygienists that were temporarily lifted during the pandemic. Like the majority of over states, the bills allow dental hygiene exams to be performed on a “manikin.” This small change will help Florida recruit educated and qualified dental hygienists to provide care in the Sunshine State.

Good oral health is important to our kids’ health, their happiness, their education and their future. We must expand access to dental care in Florida so that we can provide children with the dental care they need — and deserve.

HB 997 by Bell and SB 1444 by Brodeur is a step in the right direction, expanding access and breaking down barriers to dental care. Join me and the 68 other bipartisan, community-focused organizations that support this measure. Urge your state Senator and state Representative to support this bill.


Kim Herremans is the Executive Director of the Greater Tampa Bay Oral Health Coalition.

Guest Author

One comment

  • RP

    March 2, 2022 at 10:50 am

    Absurd. Everyone needs access to dental care. Pitting one cohort against another is a cheap, pathetic political tactic. It is NOT leadership.

Comments are closed.


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