By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
A bill aimed at thwarting cavities in babies became collateral damage in the fight over civil unions in Colorado late Tuesday night.
Senate Bill 12-108 had sailed through earlier hearings and was expected to pass in the House on Tuesday night, then be up for final approval today.
But the bill died along with nearly three dozen other measures that were held hostage during the civil unions standoff.
SB 108 would have provided funding for dental benefits for pregnant moms on Medicaid. Research has shown that mothers who have tooth decay and untreated cavities can pass bacteria to their babies, thus infecting their teeth and causing some babies and toddlers to lose all their baby teeth before age 3. Poor dental health of mothers also has been associated with premature birth, another highly expensive health problem.
Numerous dental experts from Children’s Hospital Colorado and the Colorado Dental Association had worked with advocates for low-income patients and members of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee to find funding to help pregnant mothers take better care of their teeth.
“We are disappointed,” said Dr. Ulrich Klein, a doctor of dentistry at Children’s Hospital and chair of the pediatric dentistry at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. “We have been fighting this battle for so long.”
Klein said the problem of dental cavities or caries “has epidemic proportions.”
“Caries is now more widespread than any other chronic disease,” Klein said. “It is a disease of poverty that goes with health illiteracy and general illiteracy.”
Despite the death of the bill, Klein is pleased that the issue has finally gotten attention from policymakers and lawmakers, and he hopes it will pass in the future.
Klein said very few people understand that cavity-causing bacteria can be transmitted from mother to child. Studies have shown that babies are especially vulnerable to bacteria from their mothers. One study found that children of mothers who had high levels of untreated caries were three times more likely to have cavities themselves.
So, if a mom has a untreated cavities in her mouth, then licks a pacifier or a spoon that she puts in a baby’s mouth, the bacteria can then transfer to the baby.
Some low-income mothers also tend to give their babies Sippy cups full of juice, which bathe infant mouths in sugar all day. Or, some prop bottles full of juice or formula in babies’ mouths as they go to sleep.
These habits can cause extremely costly problems for babies. Because children under 3 do not do well in dentist chairs for long appointments to have their teeth treated or removed, young patients often have to be sedated and cared for in expensive surgeries.
Klein said dentists now recommend that parents begin brushing their babies’ teeth as soon as the first teeth erupt at around six months. The first dental visit is recommended six months after the first teeth come in or no later than the baby’s first birthday.
In reality, Klein said very few low-income mothers see a dentist themselves, even if care is funded, and very few take their babies in for recommended dental visits. A study of California’s medicaid population found that 79 percent of pregnant mothers did not receive any dental care while they were pregnant. Survey respondents said they didn’t think the care was necessary or they couldn’t pay for the care. Another study in the Journal of the American Dental Association found that Hispanic women were significantly less likely than black or white women to receive routine dental care during pregnancy.
“Because the problem is so multi-faceted, we haven’t found the magic bullet yet,” Klein said.
Among those who supported the bill was Dr. Jeff Call, a pediatric dentist from Colorado Springs.
While funding from Medicaid would not have guaranteed better dental health among low-income mothers and their babies, the measure was widely supported with backing from groups including the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved.
“It was pretty important because there’s a lot of research showing that if pregnant women get dental coverage, it will reduce the risk of babies being premature,” said Aubrey Hill, health system analyst for the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved.
She said there’s some speculation that the governor could revive the bill along with civil unions and the raft of other torpedoed measures. But said Hill: “It’s all speculation. We’re not sure what’s going to happen.”