The Florida Dental Association (FDA) has secured funding to implement a dental student loan repayment program that aims to attract dentists to work in underserved areas.
The state legislature approved the creation of FDA’s dental student loan repayment program in 2019, and staff have been working to secure funding for it since then. They received good news on Monday, when the legislature committed to allocating $2 million in recurring funding to implement the program. Funds will also support the FDA’s Donated Dental Services program, which recruits volunteer dentists to provide free services to seniors and individuals with disabilities.
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FDA Chief Legislative Officer Joe Anne Hart told State of Reform that the motivation to implement a dental student loan repayment program stems from a realization that too many Floridians face challenges in accessing routine dental care.
“Or [they] are in pain and seeking care in hospital emergency departments where they only get antibiotics to treat dental infections, but not a definitive treatment for the cause of the infection,” Hart said. “There is not a shortage of dentists in Florida. Hundreds of dentists graduate from Florida dental schools each year. However, they are graduating with an average of $300,000 in student loan debt, and that is driving them to practice in areas where they can earn enough to cover that debt.”
Establishing a dental student loan repayment program will bring dentists to areas where they are needed most, Hart said.
“Participating dentists may be eligible for $50,000 a year to help repay their loans and serve in the program for up to five years,” she said. “Florida is one of only five states without a dental student loan repayment program. The return on investment for this program would be significant, as it will help lower the number of people who turn to the emergency department to relieve dental pain.”
A dental student loan repayment program is not new to Florida, as a similar program existed in the 1990s, Hart said. But that program was defunded and taken out of the state’s statute more than two decades ago.
“We’ve seen firsthand that dentists who participate in a student loan repayment program can stay and build a practice in that area,” Hart said. “And we hear from Florida dental school graduates and students that there is a strong interest in participation if this program were to be reestablished.”
Now that funding has been secured, both the dental student loan repayment and Donated Dental Services programs could be implemented within six months, Hart said.
“And Florida dentists could start helping thousands of patients in need this year,” she said. “Up to 10 dentists could enroll in the dental student loan repayment program, which would require them to practice in public health programs and serve low-income patients in designated rural and underserved areas. In one year, these 10 dentists can serve an average of 15,000 to 20,000 patients.”
The funding will also help the Donated Dental Services program expand its network of volunteer dentists and dental labs to serve patients, Hart said.
“Currently, more than 500 dentists and more than 200 dental labs volunteer with this program,” she said. “More volunteer support is needed though, as this program currently has a waitlist of approximately 900 Florida patients. This funding (will) help support hiring two full-time coordinators to grow volunteer recruitment efforts and focus on those areas where there is a waitlist for services.”
The FDA is also trying to establish a state-funded veterans dental care grant program through House Bill 635.
“Currently, veterans do not qualify for dental care through the US Department of Veterans Affairs once they leave active duty unless they are 100% disabled,” Hart said. “As part of the FDA Foundation’s annual Florida Mission of Mercy volunteer dental clinic event, veterans have the opportunity to pre-register to receive priority care, and each year we see hundreds of veterans sign up for this care.”
Several charitable organizations across the state provide or connect Florida veterans with oral health services, Hart noted.
“There is a significant need,” she said. “And this grant program would be administered through the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs for organizations to apply for funding to help cover expenses to provide care to veterans at no cost.”
The legislature provided $500,000 in funding to support the 2024 Florida Mission of Mercy, which is held in a different city each year. Previous events held in Tampa, Jacksonville, Pensacola, Fort Myers, Orlando, Tallahassee, and West Palm Beach have provided more than 13,000 patients with donated dental care valued at more than $13.5 million.