Tennessee’s governor wants to expand health coverage for pregnant women and new mothers on TennCare. And that includes dental benefits because a mom’s mouth has a surprising connection to the health of a baby.
In the last decade, there have been studies that have found some of the harmful bacteria in a pregnant woman’s mouth can end up in the stomach of their newborn. And it’s even been linked to important health indicators and risk factors for infant mortality such as pre-term births and low birth weights.
“It can be a contributing factor, and we do know that,” says Dr. Cherae Farmer-Dixon, dean of the Meharry School of Dentistry. “It’s almost like saying if you’ve got low-hanging fruit, this is one that we can help.”
Oral health experts also say providing dental coverage could establish good habits with a mother, who will pass it along to a child, like regular dental cleanings.
“If a mother is not taking care of herself, how is she going to instill those values to her unborn child?” asks Julie Gray, Meharry dentistry professor. “Making sure she receives dental care and treatment herself ensures she’s going to give that same necessary patient education to her child.”
Avoiding More Costly Care
TennCare officials have requested this additional benefit for several years. The agency covers dental visits for children until they turn 21, but not adults. Even this expansion would cut off two months after giving birth, according to the proposal.
Covering pregnant women will cost about $2 million annually in state money to cover as many as 50,000 pregnant women, according to the agency’s estimates. But TennCare officials say it could avert other risky care.
Currently, if a pregnant woman has a painful dental problem, like an abscessed tooth, they’re limited to using the emergency room and often leave with addictive pain medications rather than fixing the underlying cause of the pain.
“Not only is that extremely costly, but half of these emergency room visits result in opioid prescriptions, which we all know creates additional challenges,” TennCare deputy director Stephen Smith said during the governor’s budget hearings in November.
Gov. Lee announced the dental coverage during his State of the State address last week, but the spending still has to be approved by the legislature, which has the final word on spending.