Students can't pay attention or study in school when their mouth hurts, said Sen. Ray Cleary, a dentist. The Murrells Inlet Republican wants students to receive free, periodic dental checks at school.
"We've got children who are just not mentally alert or missing many days because of this issue," he said. "Our education in South Carolina needs to go forward."
The proposal, which is up for discussion Wednesday by a Senate panel Cleary leads, says children would be screened for dental issues in kindergarten, third, seventh and 10th grades, or whenever they first enroll in school. A coordinator would line up dental visits for children who need them. The pilot program would start in three to five of the state's poorest counties.
The coordinator would find a dentist for children who lack one, make an appointment, and provide transportation if needed to ensure the child gets there. If the child qualifies for, but isn't enrolled in, Medicaid or the state's health program for poor children, the coordinator would help parents navigate the paperwork, said Phil Latham, executive director of the South Carolina Dental Association.
"Right now, if kids are screened by a school nurse, a lot of times they don't have time to ensure kids get to the dentist," Latham said. "The coordinator would draw a bridge from the screening to the dentist."
While the program is geared to helping South Carolina's disadvantaged children, Clearly believes parents of all incomes would find the program helpful by catching cavities and other dental problems.
Tooth decay is the most common childhood disease, affecting 60 percent of children, and the problem is getting worse nationwide. Students miss an estimated 51 million school hours yearly because of dental illness. The health consequences range from malnutrition, if a child can't eat, to cardiovascular disease later in life, according to the Washington-based Pew Center on the States, which last year launched an initiative to improve access to dental care.
The South Carolina program, to be run by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, would cost the agency $63,000 the first year, if the Legislature limits it to three adjoining counties, so that the agency could hire a single coordinator for the pilot effort, said agency spokesman Adam Myrick.
While the agency supports the program, it has no money for anything new. A similar state-funded program in Spartanburg County schools was eliminated this year as shrinking revenues forced lawmakers to cut the state budget by $1 billion since July, he said.
The state's Medicaid agency reports that 430,000 children in South Carolina are covered by public health care. That includes more than 54,000 children in a new program for families with incomes between 150 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level - a maximum income of $42,400 for a family of four, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
But a report last year found that more than 12 percent of children statewide, or 132,000, had no health insurance from 2005 to 2007, according to Families USA, a national health care advocacy group.
The state's first free dental clinic for children was launched in Allendale County, the state's poorest, in 2001, as the state Education Department tried to boost student performance there. Dentists filled more than 7,000 cavities in the mouths of 1,400 children in the first four years, said schools agency spokesman Jim Foster.