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Federal Grant Helps Dental School Grads Provide Care for Underserved in Alabama

January 16, 2015

A federal grant is helping recent dental school graduates pay down their loans in exchange for treating Medicaid patients in some of the most underserved parts of Alabama.

The program is a collaborative effort between the Alabama Dental Association and the University of Alabama School of Dentistry, which received the three-year federal grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in 2013, according to Dr. Allen Conan Davis, who serves as a principal in managing the grant and is the assistant dean for community collaborations and public health at the dental school.

“The school of dentistry and the association have had a great relationship, because we’ve had a mutual interest in addressing access to care issues,” said Dr. Davis. “I think that relationship helped us secure the HRSA grant.”

A total of nine dental graduates – three each year – receive $100,000 apiece to pay down loans if they devote 30 percent of their practices to Medicaid patients and agree to stay in their communities for at least four years.

Six graduates were placed in dentally underserved areas in Alabama by the end of 2014, said Dr. Davis. Three more are expected to take part in the program this year.

Pediatric dental Medicaid fee-for-service reimbursements are at slightly over 53 percent of commercial dental insurance charges in Alabama, according to the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute. About 50 percent of Alabama children with Medicaid visit the dentist annually, compared to about 62 percent of children insured by the private market.

“We’re working hard to increase the number of Medicaid-eligible children who visit the dentist,” said Dr. Davis.

In Alabama, adults cannot receive Medicaid dental coverage, but dentists participating in the program do what they can to take care of indigent adult patients.

Dentists who receive grant funding to provide care in these economically depressed areas come from a variety of places throughout the state. Two of the grant recipients are military veterans.

“Most of our participating dentists are recent dental school graduates who are starting new practices, and they’re not necessarily going back to their home communities,” he said. “But they all have an interest in providing care to people in rural Alabama who desperately need it.”

Another related part of the grant provides financial support for dental students participating in an outreach program that allows them to spend one to two weeks treating underserved patients in state health department or Federally Qualified Health Center dental clinics located throughout the state. HRSA funds provide stipends for around 30 students each year.

“This program continues to be one of the most successful avenues for attracting recent graduates to work at these rural and underserved rotation sites after graduation, and has even caused graduates to choose to work in community health after the experience,” said Dr. Davis.