Stateline Story

Six States Lead in Children's Dental Health

New Mexico has fewer dentists per capita than all but one state, and one in five of its residents is uninsured. Despite its challenges, the state is among six national leaders in providing for the dental health of its children, according to a new 50-state report by the Pew Center on the States , the parent organization of Stateline.org . About two-thirds of the states, in fact, do not have adequate policies in place for children's dental health, with nine states receiving failing grades, the study found.

Nearly half of the New Mexico children who are enrolled in Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for the poor, received dental care in 2006 — substantially more than the national average of 38.1 percent. More than three-quarters of New Mexico's residents live in communities that have fluoridated water, which helps prevent tooth decay. And Gov. Bill Richardson and U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, both Democrats, have pushed for the creation of a dental school in New Mexico, citing the "crucial gap of oral health needs in our state."

Those were among New Mexico's strengths, according to Pew's analysis, which found that one in five children in the United States — or about 17 million kids between the ages of 1 and 18 — go without dental care. This lack of care, Pew said, can translate into lost school or work days and huge treatment costs for taxpayers that could be avoided with cheaper, preventive alternatives.

Besides New Mexico, the other states Pew identified as national leaders are Connecticut, Iowa, South Carolina, Maryland and Rhode Island. The nine states that received failing grades in the analysis are Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Children's dental health has risen in prominence as a policy issue for state and federal lawmakers since the 2007 death of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Maryland boy who died from a dental infection that spread to his brain after a lack of treatment. Pew noted that since Driver's death, which spurred national media attention and a congressional investigation, Maryland "has made tangible improvements to its children's dental care program."