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Dental Student Loan Repayment Program Inches Closer To Approval

May 2, 2019

Several counties in Florida have very few dentists who accept Medicaid - and a few have none at all.

But a bill passed by the Florida House and Senate could incentivize new dentists to work in those areas.

State lawmakers have passed similar bills before, but they were vetoed by former Gov. Rick Scott.

Now it’s up to Gov. Ron DeSantis to decide if general funds in the state budget can be allocated toward helping dentists with up to $250,000 to repay student loans.

This debt - along with the cost of their business and low Medicaid reimbursement rates - make it difficult to practice in lower income areas.

Jolene Paramore, president of the Florida Dental Association, said that when association members go into dental schools and ask how many students would be willing to do public health dentistry, about half of them raise their hands.

"And when you say, ‘how many will be able to afford to do that without any type of assistance?’ there are very few who can still raise their hand,” Paramore said.

That’s because dentists from public schools may graduate with $250,000 to $300,000 in loans. Private schools can run up to $500,000.

Zack Kalarickal, a dentist in Wesley Chapel, previously told WUSF that “There are over 700,000 Floridians who live in 30 of Florida's rural counties right now and 29 of those rural counties lack sufficient access to a dentist.”

This "Dental Student Loan Repayment Program" would be run through the Florida Department of Health and would be open to dentists who serve Medicaid recipients and low-income patients in designated rural and underserved areas of Florida.

The program will be limited to 10 dentists who will receive up to $50,000 per year for up to five years.

The dental association estimates that in those five years, those ten dentists will serve about 1 million Floridians.

"This legislation doesn't ask for money for dentists, per se, it asks for money to help patients get care,” Paramore said.

Florida is one of only five states without a dental student loan repayment program.

“We really want to catch up with the rest of the country,” Paramore said.

A similar repayment program in Florida served dentists until the 1990s.

Paramore said if the  bill is signed into law and goes into effect in July, they should be able to start helping dentists early next year.

The bill would also secure funding to expand Florida’s Donated Dental Services program, which recruits volunteer dentists and dental labs to provide free comprehensive treatment to people who are disabled, elderly, or medically compromised, and are unable to afford dental care.