Pierce County’s oral health hero

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Washington has long been a leader in improving the health of its citizens. Home to world-class research institutions like Fred Hutch, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, PATH and some of the best-ranked hospitals and health clinics in the nation, our state proves its dedication to healthier communities every day.

In Tacoma, Good Samaritan and Tacoma General were recently recognized as “Best Hospitals” in the region, and community-based healthcare organizations such as Sea Mar and Community Health Care provide medical and dental care to lower-income families in our area. Just last month, Tacoma native Burt Goodman, DDS was honored as an Oral Health Hero for his decades of service to expanding access to oral health care in Pierce County and across Washington.

More than half of all Washington’s Medicaid-enrolled children under 6 see a dentist, making our state a national leader – another result of strong community-healthcare partnerships. In Pierce County, 53 percent of Medicaid-enrolled children under 18 were able to get dental care. But it wasn’t always this way.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” In 1954, the Longshoremen’s Union decided to finance an experimental dental benefits program, partnering with the King County Dental Society, so that the children of union members could have better access to dental services.

This led to the establishment of Washington Dental Service (WDS), the parent company of Delta Dental of Washington, and eventually in 1985 the Washington Dental Service Foundation, now known as Arcora Foundation. Washington Dental Service was the very first dental benefits company in the country.

Both WDS and Arcora Foundation continue to work toward universal access to dental care in Pierce and Kitsap Counties (and beyond), where close to 600 Delta Dental member-dentists care for more than 230,000 patients and where hundreds of these private practice and community health dentists also serve lower-income Medicaid-insured or uninsured patients in need of dental care.

Fortunately, we have leaders who long ago recognized that oral health is part of whole-person care and have worked tirelessly to improve oral health for all.

As chair of the Arcora Foundation, I recently had the great honor to present an Oral Health Hero award to Tacoma’s own Dr. Burt Goodman. As a founder of nonprofit Washington Dental Service, the first president of the company’s foundation and past president of the Pierce County Dental Society, Dr. Goodman was a pioneer in the original movement to ensure dental care for all. His work has shaped the landscape of dental care in Washington for both public and private coverage. Persistently, he has improved the health of millions in our state, especially lower-income children, who would otherwise be suffering from the harmful effects of untreated tooth decay.

People with dental coverage are more likely to receive essential oral health care. Dr. Goodman’s commitment to his community laid the groundwork for the state of oral health coverage in Washington today, where more than 3 million people are covered by DDWA and one million lower-income adults had their Medicaid dental coverage restored in 2014 due to the work of Arcora Foundation and its partners. Yet, eligibility does not always lead to care, and barriers remain for lower-income patients. Delta Dental and Arcora Foundation are working with dentists across Washington to increase prevention and expand access to dental care, especially for those most at risk for disease.

Improving oral health is essential because despite the fact that it is almost totally preventable, oral disease is widespread, debilitating, costly and linked to heart disease, diabetes, pregnancy complications and many other serious medical conditions. Poor oral health also negatively affects learning and employment opportunities. It’s difficult to learn if you’re in pain from untreated cavities and it’s hard to get a job if you’re missing teeth.

As the New Year begins, we should remain committed to continuing the legacy of Dr. Goodman by advancing altruistic leadership and public policies that support the health and well-being of our communities, and benefit those who need it most.

Dr. David Branch is chair of Arcora Foundation and a recently retired private practice dentist.

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