When I first joined Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation I didn’t know very much about oral health. I didn’t realize that nearly one in three Colorado kindergartners and half of all Colorado third graders have had at least one cavity. I didn’t know that your oral health is connected to more than 120 chronic health issues, such as heart health or diabetes. Certainly, I had no idea that oral health is often not tended to because of access to care and cost. But I did know that when people are able to have all their needs met, they are healthier, happier and more productive personally and to society. I knew that when young children get preventive healthcare, safe housing and early childhood education, their long-term school and overall success is directly correlated.
For the past two plus years, I’ve been an advocate for ensuring that all Coloradans can access, understand and value the importance of good oral healthcare. When COVID-19 hit, dental offices were closed except for emergency services. As the only dedicated oral health funder in Colorado, this forced us to critically evaluate our role and how to best serve Colorado.
New enrollments in Medicaid in 2020 may skyrocket
Colorado anticipates almost 360,000 (net) new enrollments in Medicaid by the end of 2020 due to economic hardship and loss of employer sponsored health coverage. Projections indicate that up to 487,000 Coloradans will become uninsured in 2020, as they won’t qualify for public coverage but lost employer sponsored coverage. At this same time, that State of Colorado faces unprecedented budget challenges prompting many cuts, including a reduction of the Medicaid adult dental benefit from $1,500 to $1,000, insufficient to meet the dental needs of most patients. We’re grateful a benefit remains.
The reality for many people in our community is that they never had good access or affordable health care.
When Colorado families are struggling to put food on the table or secure a roof over their head, they most certainly are not prioritizing their limited financial resources on a dentist office copayment. When our immigrant neighbors are fearful of accessing healthcare (pre-COVID-19) because of the deterring public charge rule, their economic security and desire to keep their family together takes precedent over accessing dental care. COVID has had a disproportionate impact on rural, immigrant, and low socio-economic Coloradans. These populations have experienced health care disparities for decades. The reality for many people in our community is that they never had good access or affordable health care. Now they may have jobs forcing them to risk their own health for our essential needs; and they face economic crisis causing food, housing, and basic need instability.
Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation funding pivot
Respecting this reality, Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation pivoted our grant-making to support these elevated struggles. Again, if people can’t afford food or shelter, they likely aren’t spending money on dental care. If we can help our neighbors access social resources, we will help position them to receive dental care. Stepping outside our traditional oral health approach, we are focusing our funding on community-based organizations that provide wraparound services. This includes helping individuals and families navigate eligibility and enrollment in Medicaid or CHP+, understand their benefits, which include dental coverage, and connect them with local dental providers that will meet their needs.
In these tumultuous times I feel compelled to help, to leverage my privilege to support my neighbors in time of need. I know our children need and deserve a safe place to live, healthy food, good education and, now I deeply appreciate that they need and deserve good oral health. These are not distinct elements of a healthy life, if any one of them is compromised it impacts all elements. I show up every day focused how to support all our neighbors’ access and afford healthcare, and sometimes this means helping them put food on the table first.
Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation is committed to addressing oral health inequities and supporting community-based solutions that elevate the well-being of all Coloradans. Learn more at: https://www.deltadentalcofoundation.org/.
Megan Wilson is the Director of Programs at Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation. Our mission is to elevate the well-being of all Coloradans by advancing oral health equity. We are improving access to comprehensive oral health care, promoting systems and support services that prevent tooth decay, and emphasizing the vital connection of oral health to overall health.