Legislature tackles dental care issues

Image of Dentist Utensils.
Photo Courtesy of lanphierdental.com 

Florida is facing a shortage in dental care and to fill the gap, coalitions are asking lawmakers to support two competing bills for this upcoming legislative session.

SB 1498, sponsored by Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, plans to authorize licenses for a dental therapist to be able to perform specified services under the supervision of a dentist.

These services can include pulling teeth and filling cavities. The Florida Coalition for Dental Success is in support of the bill and believes it will help provide dental care to all.

A recent study by the James Madison Institute highlighted the lack of dental care professionals and dental care access in the underserved areas in Florida.

According to the report, “over 5.5 million Floridians reside in areas that have a shortage of dentists.”

Areas that face limited dental care options include low-income and rural communities with children and the elderly.

Raena Patterson, a senior pre-dental major at FAMU who learned about the shortage of professionals, said this upsetting news might act as a stepping-stone for her to pursue a career in the dental industry.

“Hearing that there is a shortage of dental professionals in Florida and many other states are disheartening,” said Patterson.  “It just makes me anxious to attend dental school, get my DMD and start serving my community.”

Sen. Brandes and the Coalition of Dental Success are hoping to join four other states – Alaska, Minnesota, Maine and Vermont – that have authorized dental therapists.

As an alternative option in providing dental care, the Florida Dental Association is in support of a different bill that brings an incentive to future dentists.  

SB 716 and HB 465 aims to implement a dental loan repayment program that supports dentists who practice in public health programs in underserved areas.

It also calls for the Department of Health to create a loan program and award funds to repay student loans to dentists who are working in these areas.

Joe Anne Hart, chief legislative officer for the Florida Dental Association, said that this bill’s loan program will catch the interest of dental students and help provide access to communities.

“We know that with students graduating with about $250,000 to $280,000 in student loan debt on an average … this is something that is very attractive to a dental student coming out of school trying to figure out where they’re going to go and start practicing,” Hart said.

The loan repayment also allows a dentist to qualify for a loan up to $50,000 annually for a five-year period. The cost of dental equipment, books, tuition, supplies, uniforms and living expenses could be covered under the loan.

Through these identical bills, the focus is not just about providing loans and treating teeth but also providing the patient with support no matter the area.

“We support having a highly trained comprehensive dentist treat individuals whether they are in a low income, socioeconomic area, or whether they are in a more affluent area,” said Hart. “We believe that everyone deserves the same dental care.”

By offering more services to support underserved areas, the dentist will be able to address any other medical issues and treat them right away.

If approved this bill’s loan program will help fund 10 dental students who are willing to practice at a public health center in an underserved area. Also, if the dental therapist bill is approved it will allow the therapist to practice under the general supervision of a dentist without a required dentist to be in the office.