Decade of Difference: Oral health emerges as public health priority

HCF's Decade of Difference report cover

HCF's Decade of Difference report cover

Ed. Note: This is a modified excerpt from our Decade of Difference report. Read more about the region’s oral health evolution in our full report.

Increased oral care capacity, improved collaboration among safety net providers and a growing awareness of the relationship between oral and general health all have helped push oral health care nearer to the forefront of public health over the past decade.

Although the supply of oral health safety net services in Kansas City still falls short of demand, the availability for the uninsured and underserved is far greater than in the early 2000s. In those days, the oral health safety net was small and fragmented; rural areas faced chronic provider shortages and community-based screening and prevention programs were few and far between.

Fortunately, the ACA — coupled with a better understanding of the links between poor oral health and disease — have helped spur the integration of primary care and oral health locally and across the nation. At the same time, well-organized advocacy efforts have scored important policy successes in Missouri and Kansas.

“We’ve seen remarkable progress over the past decade,” said Jessica Hembree, HCF program officer. “Oral health has been transformed from almost an afterthought to an increasingly salient public health issue. As a result, we’ve been able to increase service to thousands who previously would have done without. We still have a long way to go, but momentum is in our favor.”


Access to dental services for low-income populations in the region has grown dramatically since the early 2000s. Between 2006 and 2015, the number of safety net providers in Kansas offering oral health services increased from nine to 22, according to the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved. In Missouri, the number of oral health access points operated by Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) jumped from 39 in 2008 to 79 in 2015.

Swope Health Services, Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center, Health Partnership Clinic of Johnson County, and the Live Well Community Health Center of Lafayette County — all FQHCs — currently provide a full range of oral health services. In addition, other non-FQHC public health entities have been established or have expanded oral health capabilities and services.

“Things looked very different 10 years ago,” one stakeholder said. ”Back then, there were basically two safety net clinics that provided dental care. But we’ve seen FQHCs really flourish and area hospitals have taken a larger role as well. There also has been an increase in dental care provided in specific community settings, such as homeless shelters.”

The Kansas City CARE Clinic has expanded its services to include dental care and is a training site for the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry. Through the clinic, comprehensive dental care is provided to more than 500 patients annually. Seton Center also offers dental services to Medicaid, insured and self-pay patients. In 2013, the organization provided nearly 6,000 dental services to low-income patients in the metropolitan area.

Access in rural areas also has improved. In 2009, a multi-sector task force in Cass County began planning a safety net dental clinic for the county. Cass County Dental Clinic opened in 2011 in Belton and today provides care for low-income, uninsured children ages 0-20. In addition to offering dental services, the clinic works to reduce the risk of dental disease by providing oral health and behavioral education to families and by serving as a community resource on oral health issues.

The success of the clinic prompted the opening of a Harrisonville location in July 2015. Both clinics are funded and operated by the Cass Community Health Foundation.

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This blog post is part of A Healthy 10.

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HCF's Local Health Buzz Blog aims to discuss health and health policy issues that impact the uninsured and underserved in our service area. To submit a blog, please contact HCF Communications Officers, Jennifer Sykes, at


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