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Sonoma County health officials are rolling out a multi-pronged plan that seeks to reduce by one half the number of kindergarten students with tooth decay.

The plan, which focuses on children covered by Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, will place “health coaches” at 10 of the county’s community health centers. These coaches will doggedly stay on parents about their kids’ dental care, making sure they do not miss their appointments and educating them about the unhealthy effects of sugary drinks.

The health coaches will also conduct a comprehensive oral assessment of each child, allowing clinics to track progress and coordinate their care.

“It’s more effective when it’s a peer who’s delivering that message and helping with your dental health,” said Brian Vaughn, health policy director for the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. “They’re going to be doing follow-up calls, making sure they’re coming to appointments, answering questions they might have, delivering education.”

The program, dubbed Cavity Free Sonoma, is missing one tool used in many communities to prevent cavities: fluoridated water.

The Department of Health Services supports adding fluoride to Sonoma County’s water supply as part of a comprehensive initiative to reduce dental disease, said Barbie Robinson, the department’s director. However, the county has not identified a funding source to cover the cost of adding fluoride to water from the Sonoma County Water Agency, which supplies water to more than 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties. At this time, there is no scheduled date to present the issue to the Board of Supervisors, Robinson said.

To help fund the Cavity Free Sonoma program, the county has received a $3.5 million grant from the state Department of Health Care Services. The grant is part of the state’s Dental Transformation Initiative, which funds projects that help increase the use of preventative services for children covered by Medi-Cal insurance.

Currently, more than half of the county’s kindergarten and third-grade students experience cavities, and an additional 18 percent are receiving no treatment at all, according to a 2014 county dental health assessment.

County officials said they hope to reduce the share of these kids with cavities to 25 percent by 2020. That means having 75 percent of all kindergarten students cavity-free in just four years, said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, adding that Latino children are of particular concern.

“They’re twice as likely to have tooth decay and dental disease as white, middle-class kids,” she said. “Poor dental health has a real dire effect on educational achievement and confidence.”

As part of the grant funding, the county will work with Santa Rosa Junior College to enhance its community health worker certification program with an emphasis on dental health. The program will initially pay for the dental health workers at the clinics for the duration of the grant.

Vaughn said the program is designed to save Medi-Cal dollars through preventative care that reduces the need for costlier dental treatments, such as oral surgeries. Aside from paying for the dental health workers, the grant will also pay for the oral assessments conducted by these workers.

The funding will also cover the cost of developing a smartphone app that will deliver health-related messages, remind parents of their kids’ appointments and provide them with dental health records and health care coverage information.

Vaughn said he hopes the program will succeed in creating a “culture of dental health” in the home. He said another goal is to make dental health care part of the standard medical care patients receive at the county’s many community clinics.

“We’re trying to put the mouth and teeth back into the whole body when we think about health,” Vaughn said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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