State lawmakers mull solutions to N.Y. dentist shortage

As lawmakers weigh a package of bills to address dental care shortages across New York state, dentists are hopeful but skeptical about how the legislative proposals will address the multidimensional problem across the state.

State health department data shows the number of dentists in many of the state's rural and high-need areas is just one for every 4,000 people.

Saratoga County resident Sue Martin has been trying for more than five years to help her disabled friend find regular oral care after his dentist suddenly closed its doors.

He was one of thousands of patients waiting for treatment, but he was never at the top of the list or received a call to make an appointment other than for emergency treatment.

“I was looking for a dentist from Plattsburgh to Albany to Schenectady — we were willing to drive all over the area, but we couldn't find routine dental care,” she said.

The Eastman Oral Health Institute in Rochester alone has a waiting list of more than 19,000 patients.

The state's oral health care crisis has been fueled by a host of issues, including dentists retiring or closing and new dentists graduating and leaving the state, making it difficult for low-income, elderly or disabled people to get the dental care they need.

There are 37 accredited dental residency programs in the state, but only seven are located in northern Westchester County.

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, who is leading the legislative effort to address the issue, said the state needs an additional 1,100 dentists to provide care for all New York residents.

“This is not a small problem, it's affecting rural and urban communities,” said Wollner, a Democrat from Round Lake.

Wollner has introduced six bills in a legislative package aimed at improving New Yorkers' dental health, including requiring insurance plans to provide annual service reimbursement rate schedules to dental providers, creating a workforce employment program for dental professionals and waiving the dental hygiene sales tax product.

Dentists like Arthur Bigsby, a palatal prosthodontist in Syracuse, support some of these ideas. He said the sales tax exemption would help patients with high cavities index purchase highly fluoridated products, thereby improving their oral hygiene and overall health.

“Right now, a bottle or bottle costs about $22, and no one can afford that every month,” Bigsby said.

Central New York dentists believe a federal policy that allows dentists to opt out of Medicaid and Medicare should be eliminated.

Among several bills related to improving dental care in the state, some with fiscal implications, lawmakers are discussing including them in the single-family budget, which is expected to drop later Monday. Wollner said it's critical that the state increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for dental and oral care in the budget.

“I'm hopeful,” the congresswoman said. “I think people are starting to understand the importance or the scale and severity of this problem. It touches every part of the state.”

But Bisbee said lawmakers should be most focused on reducing student loan debt within the industry.

The number of educational options nationally for dental students has increased, but so has post-graduation debt. According to the American Dental Education Association, dental students graduate with an average debt of $300,000, about $50,000 more than the average debt of medical students.

Lawmakers have introduced a bill that would put dentists in the state-funded New York Physicians Program and allow them to pay off their student loans if they practice in underserved areas. Bigsby said such proposals typically would not pay dividends for indebted graduates because the scheme limits a person's ability to work elsewhere and supplement their income.

“So people have done the math, and mathematically it doesn't make sense to have loan forgiveness,” Bigsby said. “This won't no Support them, but does it really do anything?like it changed n How many patients are being treated? Actually, I think not.

Dentists are also skeptical of a proposed law that would allow mid-level practitioners to perform basic dental procedures. Bisbee said he is concerned about how the change will affect the quality of care.

“There are a lot of good providers in these specialty areas, but the question is, you know, are enough of them as good as dentists?” he said.

Wollner said lawmakers consulted with dental health practitioners about the legislation and she heard similar concerns from them.

She believes some of the proposals will immediately alleviate oral care shortages, while others will take years to see effects, and both are necessary.

“We have to try to come up with a multidimensional solution to this problem,” Wollner said.

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