Minnesota fared well in a Pew national survey of child dental health, because of its growing use of schools to provide dental sealants to needy children. The state earned a B grade overall. Somewhere between a quarter and half of its high-need schools (those where half the students qualify for subsidized lunches) offer in-school sealant programs.

Dental sealants are thin plastic coatings applied to the chewing surfaces of teeth, often when children are in grade school and their permanent molars first appear. The thinking behind school-based sealant programs is that they make it easier for low-income children to receive them -- and to avoid cavities and other severe dental problems later on that can be costly for public and private health insurance plans.

Minnesota also fared well in the Pew report because 64 percent of surveyed children had sealants -- better than the national average of 23 percent and the federal goal of 50 percent.

Oddly, the state also has a slightly above average rate of school children with cavities or tooth decay that has been treated, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. One would think that a high rate of sealants would immediately translate into a low rate of cavities and fillings! On the good side, at least, the rate of untreated cavities and tooth decay in children in Minnesota is lower than the national average and the federal goal.

Pew downgraded Minnesota in its national report for restricting the ability of dental hygienists to give sealants at in-school programs without the direct oversight of dentists. Pew wants states to allow hygienists to do this work, and to give sealants, without a dentist needing to give the OK first. Minnesota requires that hygienists first have contracts with dentists and a certain number of training and practice hours.

In response to the report, the Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation announced it would contribute $500,000 to a new campaign to increase sealant programs in needy schools. Fifteen other states, including North Dakota and Wisconsin, already have these programs in more than half of their schools.


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