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'Give Kids A Smile! Day': Annual event brings community together for children's health

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The 17th Annual Give Your Kids A Smile! Day brought together nearly 200 volunteers, including dentists, dental students and other healthcare professionals, as well as a host of ECU athletes. Dr. Billy Williams, who co-chairs the annual event, said volunteers look forward to the day, which provides free care for area children in need.

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Cheerleaders and athletes, Pee Dee the Pirate and Purple the Clown joined local dentists and other health care professionals on Friday to show kids that having to go to the dentist was nothing to dread.

Instead, at Give Kids A Smile! Day, getting to go to the dentist was something to celebrate.The 17th annual event, sponsored by the East Central Dental Society, provided nearly $40,000 worth of free dental care to children in need.

“It gives individuals who are disadvantaged an opportunity, even if it's once a year,” said Alex Kordis, clinical assistant professor of pediatric dentistry, who volunteered at the event along with more than a dozen students from the ECU School of Dental Medicine. “It introduces them to what dental health should be. It doesn't have to be scary.”

In addition to routine dental cleaning and fluoride treatment, the 80 patients required six crowns, 23 extractions, 42 fillings, 88 x-rays and 118 sealants. They also received blood pressure, height, weight and body mass index measurements, a vaccination history review and educational information at the event, which is co-sponsored by the the Pitt County Health Department, the James and Connie Maynard Children's Hospital at Vidant Medical Center, ECU's School of Dental Medicine, College of Nursing and Brody School of Medicine.

Dr. Jason Higginson, pediatrician in chief at the James and Connie Maynard Children’s Hospital and professor and chairman of pediatrics, said good dental health is necessary for a child's overall health.

“There are a lot of chronic diseases that are affected by poor dental health,” said Higginson, who was attending his first Give Kids A Smile! Day. “Not having access to dental care is a major factor.

“What we've realized is it goes hand-in-hand,” he said. “If you're lacking in dental care, you're generally lacking (in other areas)”

Give Kids A Smile! Day began in 2002 when two Missouri dentists gave free dental care to about 400 children. Held the first first Friday in February to kick off National Children’s Dental Health Month, the event has grown into a nationwide effort that has served more than 5.5 million youth.

Give Kids A Smile! Day has become an annual event for Rolanda Ward and her four sons. Markevion, 13, Marxavier, 11, My-Khazhiyu, 8, and Mason, 6, were back Friday for the third year in a row. The event is the only time any of the boys has ever visited a dentist.

“I don't have any insurance for them — not dental,” Ward said. “I work, but my (dental) insurance if I had them, it would be so expensive I couldn't afford it.”

N.C. Rep. Kandie Smith, who attended Friday's event along with Rep. Greg Murphy and N.C. Sen. Don Davis, said it is disheartening to learn that some families have to regularly rely on the free event for dental care.

“This is part of basic care,” she said. “That's why we proposed that Medicaid expansion bill for those people that are the working class. They fall right in that gap. They're working, but they cannot afford the insurance because it's too expensive.”

Dr. Mark Casey, dental officer for the Division of Medical Assistance, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, attended Friday's event in Greenville. He said most of the potential beneficiaries of expanded Medicaid would be adults.

“But one thing that's helped just recently is we've announced a 10 percent increase in dental reimbursement rates,” Casey said. “So that will help access, particularly for children.”

Tha is good news to parents like Hillary Huza, who brought her sons, Riley, 7, and Caleb, 12, to the free event on Friday. Huza, who recently moved to Greenville, said she has not found a dental office to accept her children's Medicaid.

“It's awesome for parents that don't have dental insurance or can't find a place that is taking patients right now,” she said.

Dr. Lee Lewis, co-chairman of the local Give Kids A Smile! Day, said dental practices often have to limit the number of Medicaid patients they treat due to low reimbursement rates.

“Medicaid pays us about 37 percent of what we charge,” he said of Eastern Orthodontics and Pediatric Dentistry, which hosted Friday's event. “That does not even cover half of our overhead.”

Lewis hopes that an increase in reimbursements will enable more practices to provide care for Medicaid patients. But he said the focus of Give Kids A Smile! Day is not just for Medicaid patients.

“It's the families that fall between the cracks, the families that make too much to qualify for Medicaid but don't make enough to be able to pay for insurance,” he said. “All of it is part of what we're working for trying to provide better access to care for everybody.

“We're here 17 years later, and access to care is still at the forefront and the need is still there,” Lewis said. ”This isn't just an eastern North Carolina problem. This is a nationwide problem.”

This year, more than 1,500 Give Kids A Smile! Day events were scheduled across the country. The North Carolina Dental Society was aiming to have events in all 100 counties across the state.

Chris Cotterill, pediatric residency director for ECU's dental school, hopes that dental students who volunteer at the local Give Kids A Smile! Day will be inspired to start similar efforts in other parts of the state.

“It's been a good experience for the students, not only to treat children but also to see how a program like this is organized,” he said. “We want the dental students to go back to their home counties, where there is no one else practicing maybe. We want them to have knowledge of how something like this can look and then maybe they can go back and set something like this up for their own county.”

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