As a dental hygienist and former member of the Florida Board of Dentistry, I recognize firsthand a significant issue that must be addressed by our state — a lack of affordable, available, quality dental care.
In Florida, many seniors who live on a fixed budget have no dental home and, in 2017, approximately 60 percent of Medicaid-eligible children, 1.7 million, did not receive any dental services in Florida. As a result, more people lose their teeth and go to emergency Rooms for preventable dental conditions, which is an enormous cost to our state.
In 2016, in Florida, 167,000 people visited the ER for preventable dental issues at a cost of half a billion dollars. In 2017, in Orange County, there were more than 8,990 visits to the ER with a cost of more than $17 million. Unfortunately, those who use the ER for dental issues do not get dental treatment there; rather, they are prescribed pain pills and antibiotics, which is a temporary solution until they can seek definitive dental treatment, to which many do not have access.
One evidence-based solution adopted by 12 other states is to expand the dental team by utilizing dental therapists. These midlevel providers are highly trained to do a limited number of procedures to the same level of quality and safety as a dentist. They will take a State of Florida Clinical Licensure Exam for their specific tasks and will be regulated by the Florida Board of Dentistry, also like dentists.
At Community Health Centers locations in Winter Garden and Apopka, we have had a collaboration with the University of Florida College of Dentistry for 23 years. Each semester, two students, who are not dentists, come to our sites for two-week rotations. They are students who are supervised by dentists, and in our 23-year partnership we have not had any adverse situations in regards to dental care. Rather, having these dental students has expanded our ability to provide care for those in need of immediate and ongoing comprehensive services in both adults and pediatric populations.
Dental therapists will not be students — they will be licensed practitioners. They can provide primary and preventive dental care and increase access to oral care by 50 to 75 percent, a profound impact for those who need the services the most. Many patients are on Medicaid, are uninsured or indigent, and on a reduced fee sliding scale, plus many do not have access to private practicing dentists due to financial obstacles. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 400,000 individuals in Orange County alone qualify for the sliding scale. If allowed in the State of Florida, we can use dental therapists to help reach these patients and alleviate the overwhelming need for good oral health care.
I urge you to reach out to our local lawmakers and ask that they support the dental therapy legislation in Florida’s upcoming legislative session. If they have already expressed their support, such as Rep. Rene Plasencia, thank them for their support to help Floridians in need.
The author is a dental hygienist and the Director of Dental Operations at Community Health Center.