Last year, a resident of a Western Kentucky nursing home contracted a potentially life-threatening gum infection because the staff never realized the person wore dentures and hadn't removed them for six months, according to a state citation.
Some officials said the incident is reflective of a long standing problem in many nursing homes: The staff tends to ignore the oral health of residents.
But a House Health and Welfare committee on Thursday unanimously passed a bill introduced by a Lexington lawmaker that would require the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to collaborate with the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville schools of dentistry to implement a pilot program to improve daily access to oral health care for nursing home residents. The bill now goes to the full House for a vote.
"We know that oral health care saves lives," said State Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, who sponsored House Bill 510. "It especially helps people have less pain-filled lives."
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Under the bill, the pilot project would be funded by federal civil monetary penalties collected from nursing home owners when deficiencies are found in facilities.
The bill calls for nursing aides to be hired to provide oral care services for nursing home residents.
Advocate Bernie Vonderheide, founder of Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform, said that most nursing homes in Kentucky provide little or no oral health care — even activities as simple as brushing residents' teeth.
"The result is serious health problems," said Vonderheide. "Recent studies have shown that as much as 44 percent of infections in nursing homes, such as deadly pneumonia, are caused by poor oral care," he said. "If this bill makes it into law, many lives will be saved. The legislature has taken a very important first step in doing just that."
University of Kentucky associate professor and researcher Pam Stein testified before the committee Thursday.
"There has been some research that indicates that if you have one nursing assistant solely responsible for providing oral care, the rates of pneumonia significantly decrease in that facility," Stein said in an interview.
Under the bill, the state Department of Public Health and the universities would have to evaluate the pilot project and report the findings to the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare.
A small pilot study, carried out at Lexington's Homestead Nursing Home by the University of Kentucky, ended in the fall of 2011.
One dental hygienist helped a nurse's aide become an oral health specialist who provided daily oral care to residents. Representatives of the UK study spot-checked the residents' oral care and let the aide know about specially designed toothbrushes and other useful equipment.
UK received a $25,000 grant from the Virginia-based Dental Trade Alliance Foundation, which funds programs that improve access to oral health care, to conduct the study. The results have not been released, but Stein said that it led to the creation of "high quality training materials that can be used worldwide for free."