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Historic Commitment to Oral Health

In one of the largest such investments in HRSA's history, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced in June that 420 health centers in 47 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico will receive $156 million in funding to hire 1,600 new dentists, dental hygienists, assistants, aides and technicians.

The funding is expected to create enough capacity to serve nearly 785,000 new patients.

Three quarters of health centers directly provide dental services beyond preventive dental care. The new awards will allow some to add oral health services on-site for the first time, helping more patients receive the majority of their health care in one location.

In the wake of the release, the largest single award for oral health expansion that HRSA has ever provided, Acting Associate Administrator Jim Macrae noted that “HRSA will continue to explore ways to further integrate oral health services within primary care settings.”

“Although the nation’s oral health has improved over the last decade, disparities continue to exist, especially among the underserved and vulnerable populations, with lower income adults and children experiencing higher rates of dental disease,” said Vy Nguyen, a dental officer with HRSA's Bureau of Primary Health Care.

The new grants meet several recommendations of the 2011 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, Advancing Oral Health in America (PDF - 1.4 MB), which found that “the term oral health care system is a misnomer, as the delivery of oral health care occurs in multiple settings by various health care professionals without coordination or integration. To the extent that there is a system, it is fragmented."

An orthodontist examining a child's mouth.
In 2011, the Institute of Medicine issued a HRSA-commissioned report estimating that
millions of hours of work and school time are lost annually to untreated oral health conditions.

More than 49 million people live in 5,000 Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas, according to the Bureau of Health Workforce. In rural areas, it is estimated that nearly a third of adults have untreated tooth decay. Visit the Rural Health Information Center for more details.

“The oral health system still largely depends on a traditional, isolated dental care model in the private practice setting -- a model that does not always serve significant portions of the American population well,” the IOM concluded.

Hardest hit were “female, Hispanic, lower-income, and uninsured children,” the IOM found, resulting in more than a 150 million hours of lost work time and 51 million hours of lost school hours. “For over a century, poor oral health (also) has been a factor in the readiness of military troops to be deployed.”

Popular attention to the connection between oral health and overall health increased dramatically in 2007 with the death of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Maryland boy, when bacteria from an untreated tooth infection spread to his brain, the report found.

That event and the IOM report then in progress helped spur the HHS Oral Health Initiative of 2010.

Man reclined in a dentist's office being examined by a female orthodontist.
Expanding care: With nine integrated health center sites throughout the greater Baltimore area,
Chase Brexton Health affords dental services as part of routine primary care to more than 27,000 patients.
The health center was among five in Maryland to receive a total of $1.75 million in last week's awards.

“Given that health centers are in a position to serve the nation’s most underserved population, these (new) awards are important to increasing the capacity of health centers to provide oral health services and address access gaps,” Nguyen said Thursday.

In 2014, health centers employed over 3,700 dentists, more than 1,600 dental hygienists, and over 7,400 dental assistants, technicians and aides. They served about 4.7 million dental patients and provided nearly 12 million oral health visits.

See the complete list of grantees.

Read the HHS Oral Health Strategic Framework, 2014-2017.

Date Last Reviewed:  April 2017