Dental Care Inequities Affect Poor and Rural Residents in Illinois

Dentistry Today


While families across the nation struggle with maintaining oral health, times are particularly tough in the Prairie State according to Oral Health in Illinois, a comprehensive assessment released by the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation, Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation, and Michael Reese Health Trust. According to the report, tooth decay disproportionally affects poor and rural residents there. 

For example, untreated cavities and other oral health problems are prevalent among children in Illinois, particularly for those living in poverty and rural areas. A third of children in rural areas have untreated tooth decay, and impoverished children are 5 times more likely to have fair or poor oral health. Also, only 55% of children on Medicaid saw a dentist in the previous year.

“Far too many children in Illinois don’t receive the dental care they need,” said Heather Alderman, president of the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation. “Untreated tooth decay can affect children’s diet, sleep, and ability to learn. This situation is unconscionable when you consider how treatable and preventable these diseases are.”

Meanwhile, 2.48 million adults in the state have untreated tooth decay, and 17% of adults age 65 years and older have lost all of their natural teeth due to decay. Medical professionals agree that good oral health is critical to overall health and well-being. Adults with untreated cavities face the same issues as children and risk tooth loss that can impact their ability to talk, eat, show emotion, and earn a living.

“Increasing access to dental care and educating Illinoisans about the importance of oral health are key to advancing the overall health of all Illinoisans,” said Lora Vitek, director of philanthropy and community relations for the Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation. “With the first of its kind state oral health assessment, we are able to see these disparities more clearly, which will lead to positive change in our community and help further our mission of improving oral health in the state.”

A shortage of dental health providers and insufficient Medicaid reimbursement rates were identified as significant contributors to the access problem in Illinois, which has the fourth lowest Medicaid reimbursement rate in the nation for pediatric dental care. Also, the state is last in the nation in reimbursement for adult treatments. These low rates inhibit provider participation, as 27 of 102 counties in Illinois have only one registered Medicaid provider, while 17 counties have no provider at all.

“Given the importance of oral health, we are hoping that the findings of this report help policymakers see the real challenges our state faces,” said Gayla Brockman, president and CEO of the Michael Reese Health Trust. “We need to make policy changes that will improve access to oral health treatment, especially for our severely underserved low-income and rural populations.”

The challenges include a persistent shortage of oral health professionals in many rural areas, especially southern Illinois. Millions of residents live in these dental health shortage areas, and many more live in areas without access to any specialty dental providers. The report’s sponsors are unveiling a new website,, to document their findings and raise awareness about oral health challenges in the state.

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