By Daylina Miller
Dentists burdened by high student loan debt may soon get some relief.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law HB 843 that – among other things - revives a defunct loan repayment program for dentists who see low-income patients.
“This is a way that we can provide care in those communities that are underserved, be able to reach Floridians who don't have access to a dentist, and be able to have them be a Medicaid provider,” said Jolene Paramore, president of the Florida Dental Association.
“We want them to also establish in those communities because there'll be jobs created from the dental team. And more importantly, to get care to those individuals who need help, (and) reduce emergency department visits.”
Dentists from public schools may graduate with $250,000 to $300,000 in loans. Private schools can run up to $500,000. High payments and low Medicaid reimbursement rates make it hard for them to practice in under-served areas.
While there’s not a shortage of dentists in Florida, they tend to flock to more urban areas where people have more money, leaving many regions in Florida without access to dental care – especially providers who take Medicaid.
“One of the reasons we pushed this legislation so that we can get dentists in those areas that are the mal-distribution areas,” Paramore said.
Florida is one of only five states without a dental student loan repayment program. This bill remedies the program part, but doesn’t pay for the implementation.
Paramore hopes the $773,000 in funding – which will help pay for another dental initiative - comes during the next legislative session.
"We're grateful to get the policy passed and excited about this first step,” Paramore said. “ And now we're going to need to look at the next step in terms of getting the funding passed to actually implement the bill and bring it to an action item next year."
Ten participating dentists may receive up to $50,000 a year to help repay their loans and can serve in the program for up to five years. Paramore says this program could be implemented within six months with appropriate funding from the state.
The Florida Dental Association says those 10 participating dentists – and a full staff of dental professionals at each practice - would be able to treat at least one million Floridians within five years.
A similar repayment program in Florida served dentists until being defunded and then taken out of Florida statute almost 20 years ago.
Additionally, the law expands Florida’s Donated Dental Services program - which provides free care for the state's poorest residents. The dental association will also ask for funding for this component during the next session.
Similar bills previously passed by the Legislature over the last few years were vetoed by then-Governor Rick Scott. This one started off as a standlone proposal, and was bundled into a general health care bill.
HB 843 also includes “requiring a hospital to notify a patient's primary care provider within a specified timeframe after the patient's admission; requiring a licensed facility, upon placing a patient on observation status, to immediately notify the patient of such status using a specified form; prohibiting certain health maintenance organizations from employing step-therapy protocols under certain circumstances, etc.”