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Senate hearing on 'dental crisis'

September 13, 2013

By Craig Palmer, ADA News staff

Washington-She and her clients “are standing together in the same line, looking for help” for their dental needs, a Falls Church, Va., social worker told a Senate subcommittee Sept. 12 at a hearing on Dental Crisis in America: The Need to Address Cost.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who convened the hearing, said he expects this month to reintroduce legislation offered in the last Congress “aimed at ending the dental crisis in America by expanding coverage, creating new access points, enhancing the workforce, improving education and funding new research.” “It’s an expensive bill,” the senator said, but perhaps no more expensive in economic and social terms and maybe less than “we are paying for this crisis in an inefficient, unjust system.”

“I personally am focused on this issue because I am not able to afford to pay the exorbitant cost for the dental work I need,” Cathi Stallings, one of four hearing witnesses, told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee on primary health and aging chaired by Sen. Sanders. “As a social worker, I work with severely mentally ill clients, many of whom have not been able to afford to go to a dentist in years “¦ But on this issue all of us are standing together in the same line, looking for help.”

Ms. Stallings and Dr. Debony R. Hughes, dental health program chief in Prince George’s County, Md., testified to recent Mission of Mercy experiences, Ms. Stallings spending the night on a sidewalk sharing “stories of dental nightmares” with others hopeful of free dental care the next day and Dr. Hughes one of many volunteers providing the MOM care.

“These experiences reminded me that quality dental care is not a luxury, it is a necessity and we need to make it accessible and affordable for adults to receive the care they need and deserve,” Dr. Hughes testified. She called for “a stronger financial commitment to support the public health infrastructure so that the dental needs of all Americans can be met.”

“We need an oral health workforce that is less expensive than dentists to deliver routine dental services so that dentists can focus on more complex procedures, and we need workforce locations that are more efficient than private dental practices with their high overhead,” Dr. Frank Catalanotto testified. He is professor and chair of the department of community dentistry and behavioral science at the University of Florida College of Dentistry and vice chair of Oral Health America’s Board of Directors.

Greg Nycz, a fourth invited witness, described the “dramatic progress of Wisconsin’s health centers in expanding oral health access to a growing number of Wisconsin residents.” He told the Senate panel of having “worked for change within organized dentistry. “¦ The Wisconsin Dental Association, keenly aware of the access problems, convened a committee to explore ways to resolve access problems and enable more of our state’s dentists to participate in the Medicaid program. They extended an invitation to me to serve on that committee as the only nondentist in order to get the perspective of a community health center director.” Mr. Nycz is the executive director of Family Health Center of Marshfield, Inc., a federally and state supported community health center.