Winfree also said SoonerCare, which is Oklahoma’s Medicaid program, provides limited dental coverage to adults. The program covers teeth cleaning, full exams and fillings for pregnant women. Otherwise, it only pays for emergency teeth extractions.
Another reason for poor dental health in Oklahoma is a shortage of dentists. The state is home to about 2,000 dentists, but most are located in urban areas such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa, creating dental deserts elsewhere. This year the state designated 56 counties as dental health shortage areas; four of the counties don’t have any dentists.
Winfree said addressing the issues is important because oral care is vital to maintaining overall health.
“It just makes you a healthier person because you have a better quality of life,” she said.
Despite the problem, the dental health services’ budget has dropped by nearly 30 percent over the past three years, to $1.2 million. Winfree’s division is using various strategies to address the problems.
One of the most critical is fluoridation of water, considered crucial in preventing tooth decay.
Among the state’s 1,095 community water systems, two-thirds are not fluoridated, according to a 2012 Oklahoma Community Water Fluoridation Plan. Only 53 systems add fluoride to improve health benefits. More than 300 others buy fluoridated water from other systems or use naturally fluoridated water, the plan said.
About 65 percent of Oklahomans receive water from a fluoridated supply, according to a CDC survey. That compares to 74 percent nationally.
“Our department is trying to provide water fluoridation because cities are usually stopping the practice for mechanical or cost reasons,” Winfree said.
Shawnee, McAlester and Okmulgee are among cities that have stopped fluoridation. To combat the trend, the state has stepped up efforts to promote the benefits of fluoridated water and is monitoring fluoride levels.
“Science supports that fluoridation is beneficial, cost-effective and safe to all those who drink fluoridated water,” Oklahoma’s fluoridation plan says.