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These are scary and uncertain times. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has exposed the many holes in our health care delivery and other social safety net systems. Unfortunately, the communities struggling most to access testing and treatment for COVID-19 are many of the same communities hit hardest by the economic impacts of this virus and who struggle to access the oral health care they need. As many advocates shift focus to protecting the physical, emotional, and financial health of their communities, we know that the need for access to critical dental care has not gone away.
Even before COVID-19, millions of people struggled every day to access oral health care, living with pain and unmet need. For those without adequate dental coverage and access to care, community health centers, federally qualified health centers and hospitals are often the only available sites of care. Many of these sites have been overwhelmed by, and have had to make changes to their care delivery models in light of, COVID-19, limiting people’s access to routine dental and other essential care there.
And, once this acute public health crisis abates, the longstanding dental care crisis will remain.
Because of this, we must stay vigilant. Fortunately, we know that oral health advocates across the country already have been fighting for a more just dental delivery system. In this unique moment, we have the opportunity to transform a system that has historically left many without access to the oral health care they deserve. Now, more than ever, we need to invest in innovative ways of delivering care. Below are several policy options to consider as you balance public health response to COVID-19 and advocacy for a robust, affordable and respectful dental delivery system – to respond to this crisis and to carry us forward toward a future with oral health equity.
- For now: In light of recommendations for dental providers not to offer non-emergency care amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many people can’t get the routine care they need. Tele-dentistry would allow people to access evaluation and get advice for at-home care until it is safe to receive care in a clinic or dental office. Many state Medicaid programs may be able to authorize coverage of tele-dentistry services immediately given the current public health crisis.
- For the future: Widespread public health crises are not the only, or even most common, barrier that limit peoples’ ability to get to a dental appointment. Lack of providers in a community, lack of accessible transportation, inability to pay for care, among other social determinants, create barriers every day. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic has waned, expansion of tele-dentistry services, especially when paired with authorizing dental therapists, can expand the reach of the delivery system and help more people get access to timely care.
These are not radical solutions, but they do represent a shift in how dental care is currently provided in this country. Community Catalyst been partnering with oral health advocates for years to advocate for these and other necessary changes to the system. That won’t stop now and it won’t stop after we’ve begun to recover from this crisis.
Please see this list for additional COVID-19 related resources and guidance for oral health professionals and advocates. As always, if you or your organization would benefit from targeted support or specific resources, please don’t hesitate to reach out.