A reconstituted Missouri Coalition for Oral Health has recruited state lawmakers to its cause and taken strides toward funding a state dental director as part of its renewed advocacy efforts.
Reorganized about a year ago and led since mid-December by new Executive Director Gary Harbison, the coalition has lined up a bipartisan pair of state representatives to push for establishing an Oral Health Caucus in the General Assembly next year.
Coalition officials said they also have cajoled the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services into including funding for a state dental director in an oral health workforce development grant submitted to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. A decision on the grant award is expected in the fall.
“It’s onward and upward from here,” Harbison said. “We are in it for the short haul and in it for the long haul.”
Another goal is to expand the coalition’s reach by partnering with local dental initiatives, including the Oral Health Access Committee that is operating in Kansas City through the Mid-America Regional Council.
State Reps. Donna Lichtenegger, a Jackson Republican, and Jeanne Kirkton, a Webster Groves Democrat, are leading the charge on the legislative caucus. Lichtenegger is a dental hygienist and Kirkton is trained as a nurse.
They both said the caucus would help educate members of the General Assembly on oral health issues.
“I see my role as making our state reps more aware of the dental situation, not only in the state, but nationwide, to where they feel comfortable enough to even go into their areas and talk about this problem,” Lichtenegger said. “As leaders, it is up to us to show leadership.”
Kirkton said she hoped senators also would attend the caucus meetings.
“We are all close by,” she said, “so location is not a problem.”
Like the caucus, a state dental director could advocate for oral health initiatives within the state bureaucracy, said Harbison and coalition Chairman Mike French, co-director of the Area Health Education Centers Program at A.T. Still University of Health Sciences in Kirksville.
Missouri has some work to do to improve the oral health of its residents, according to a report released last month by the Health Forward Foundation, the REACH Healthcare Foundation, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.
Missouri is 41st and 33rd, respectively, among all states in the percentage of adults who had seen a dentist or had their teeth cleaned within the past 12 months, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was noted in the report.
The same three foundations provided funding to restart the coalition, which has a budget of nearly $175,000.
French’s involvement with the coalition dates back about five years, and he said the coalition had been around for a few years prior to that.
But, he said, funding and leadership for the coalition was sporadic. By around 2009, French said, the organization was dormant.
French said he came away from a recent national oral health conference convinced that partnering with regional and local oral health initiatives was an important way to build a sustainable coalition.
“A lot of the work has to be done at the grassroots level,” he said.
The Missouri coalition has looked across the border for guidance from Oral Health Kansas and its Executive Director Tanya Dorf Brunner.
The Missouri coalition is taking the right steps, Brunner said, including pushing for funding of a state dental director.
That was one of the first priorities for the Kansas coalition when it started in 2003, she said, and it succeeded in getting the Legislature to establish an oral health office within the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“If they can get that done,” Brunner said of funding a dental director, “other things will just start to happen. It will change everything.”
For instance, she said, a director can hopefully procure more grant funding for oral health efforts.
As co-chairman of the local Oral Health Access Committee, Dr. Mike Jurkovich, dental director for Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center, expressed support for the reinvigorated Missouri coalition.
But, he noted, the state coalition is a fairly new effort, as is his committee.
“We are all excited,” he said. “Let’s see where we end up and how we can sustain that excitement.”
The Health Forward Foundation is proud to partner with the Kansas Health Institute news service to provide weekly health stories about health and policy issues impacting the greater Kansas City region. This News Service is an editorially independent program of the Kansas Health Institute and the Health Forward Foundation and is committed to objective coverage of health issues.