A Dedicated Dentist: One Lawmaker's Passion for Dentistry Brought Nationwide Attention to Kids' Oral Health Woes
Guiden, Mary, State Legislatures
When Ray Rawson first ran for the Senate in the mid-1980s, his opponent called him "Root Canal" Rawson, poking fun at him and his profession. But he won the race (by a mere 680 votes) and became the first dentist to serve in the Nevada Legislature.
Though he held off on pushing major dental initiatives for nearly 10 years--"I didn't want to be accused of conflict of interest,"--he discovered that his strength as a legislator came from the knowledge his profession brought him. Today, this quiet and unassuming man is described as authoritative and "committed to the cause" by peers and colleagues across the country. He's been lauded for his work on dental health by Nevada's public health and social workers' associations. Last year he helped establish the state's first dental school at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and secured $20 million in funding for the facility.
Rawson says one issue that brought him into politics was the plight of poor people who had serious oral health problems, but no way to get services. "I would see patients every day who had no ability to pay. Nobody else would see them. I could never turn those people away," he says. "We had to deal with the basic human essential of getting them out of pain and infection. It seemed to me that I could never solve that problem from just my office. It took a bigger effort, and we needed more programs."
One of his first major projects was helping to create a hospital-based dental residency program to take care of all the kids showing up at emergency rooms with teeth problems. "We found there were 2,400 hospital admissions a year of kids with dental complaints, bad infections and pain. They didn't have a dentist in the emergency room, so they would admit these kids and put them on antibiotics. It's very expensive to do that and it didn't solve their problem," he explains.
Building the residency program sparked a change in the way Rawson saw his role in the Legislature. He'd held off for a long time, but then he decided he needed to take more action. "From that point on, I realized we've got a citizen Legislature with firemen, school teachers, accountants and lawyers, and nobody is going to deal with the dental problems," Rawson says. "If I don't speak up, nobody will. So I jumped in with both feet. It's from the residency program that we decided to fund a dental school. And it's off and going. They're accepting their first class right now.
Rawson also decided in 1997 to tackle the thorny issue of fluoride treatment in drinking water. It was one oral health-related area where he met with relatively strong opposition.
Fluoridation is cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements in the 20th century for the role it has played in dramatically reducing tooth decay.
Approximately 162 million people across the country have fluoridated water, the CDC reports. State percentages range from a high of 98.2 percent of the population in Minnesota to a low of 2 percent in Utah.
THE FLORIDE DEBATE
Some groups oppose increasing water fluroidation for what they see as health reasons. Organizations like the Fluoride Action Network and California-based Citizens for Safe Drinking Water say fluoride is akin to harmful pesticides, causing long-term health risks such as bone fractures and arthritis.
Robert Hall, head of the Nevada Environmental Coalition, who challenged the fluoride regulation, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal the water additive is a scheme by government and industrial interests to poison millions of Americans. "It's ethically and morally outrageous," he says.
Rawson says arguments like Hall's are based on "junk science" and are phony. "Fluoride really works, and it really is safe," he says.
Rawson won out over the arguments against fluoride in the 1999 session, and Las Vegas--which holds 71 percent of the state's population--finally got fluoridated water. …