The Bigger Picture

Examining inequities in our nation's healthcare system through the eyes of our partner.

Our nation’s current crises have highlighted both health and oral health inequities that undermine the ability of millions of people across the United States to lead healthy, productive, and dignified lives. However, for Kelly Stupple, the Client Advocacy Coordinator for Washtenaw Health Plan, oral health has always been a priority, in addition to addressing structural barriers and health disparities.

Working with Washtenaw County for 13 years, Kelly first took on the challenge of creating access to health care for pregnant women and children who encountered barriers for insurance or who were uninsured. “There are many wonderful things you can do when you’re able to help people get insurance and access to health care,” shared Kelly.

As she found success in the ability to impact Medicaid enrollments, Kelly and her colleagues also made strides in keeping families insured. However, like other counties in Michigan, Washtenaw County continues to maintain large disparities in terms of income and equitable access to care in both urban and rural communities.

“One of the missions of the Washtenaw Health Plan remove ’s and mission is to help provide access to health care for people regardless of immigration status,” Kelly shared. “And we are unique in that we are surrounded by collaborative partners helping to provide access to care for uninsured patients. These partners include organizations such as Michigan Medicine/University of Michigan Health System, St. Joseph Mercy Health System/Trinity Health, and more.”

Kelly, however, could not overlook the significant gaps in overall care, stating, “Mental and dental health were looked at separately from overall health, as if our head is not part of our body. Why are our teeth and our oral health seen as something separate? In a County that has more dentists per capita than just about any place in the country, we still had kids and adults going without care.”

With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, there was improved access to overall care, but for those individuals undocumented or falling outside of qualifying for Medicaid, there is still a need.

Washtenaw Health Plan was able to secure $20,000 annually from the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners dedicated to a dental access fund, expanding access to the county’s most vulnerable community members. “Together, we were able to forge a pathway for patients, giving them access to x-rays, exams, cleanings, fillings, and providing them the care they needed at no cost. Plus, while preventive care has been a focus, this year we were able to secure enough funding to treat more extensive issues,” Kelly exclaimed.

“We had a single mom, French-speaking from West Africa, who broke down in tears of joy over the phone a couple of weeks ago when we told her that the dental fund would cover her $2,500 treatment, plus cover her daughter’s exam, x-rays, and cleaning,” shared Kelly.

Washtenaw’s partnership with My Community Dental Centers is integral to growing trust and community connections, advocating for greater affordability, and improving access to care for patients in similar circumstances. Our team-based approaches and shared priorities are an added bonus in delivering cost-effective and collaborative care. We’re truly empower patients and improving oral health outcomes for the community as a whole.

“What people don’t realize is that this helps everyone, in terms of improved work productivity, fewer missed school days and reduced Emergency Department visits,” Kelly stressed. “The last thing we want to do is stress our healthcare system, and this collaboration is helping us prevent that from happening.”

“With the ripples of Covid-19 still lingering, the need is only increasing and, unfortunately, the capacity to serve more patients hasn’t been able to increase, causing everything to slow down,” Kelly said. “We need to meet the present challenge with a strategic and innovative approach, by preparing young people to take roles in healthcare, taking opportunities with a public health mentality and changing the way we look at life in this country.”

“We owe it to the rest of the communities in our state to spread the word of the good work we are doing. We need decision-makers, dental schools preparing our future dentists, and community colleges training our hygienists and assistants to collaboratively seek opportunities to impact the economic and overall well-being of our state as a whole.”