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More poor and elderly Georgians could get basic dental care under bill

It took a few years, but dental hygienists finally may have gotten the ability to provide basic dental care to thousands of poor children and elderly Georgians without a dentist present.

That’s a big deal because most counties in Georgia don’t have enough dentists to meet the need and emergency-room visits for dental care cost taxpayer-funded health programs big money, supporters of the legislation said.

Lawmakers approved House Bill 154, a pet project of Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta and Sen. Rene Unterman, R-Buford, in the final hours of the 2017 session. It is now on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk for his consideration.

RELATED: Batter up: Georgia governor reviews controversial legislation 

The two lawmakers, chairwomen of the House and Senate health committees, said the legislation was held up in the past by the dentists lobby, which has traditionally been a generous donor to General Assembly political campaigns.

Dental Association officials said in the past that they were concerned about the safety of patients, but they agreed to support the measure this year.

Under the legislation, dental hygienists would be allowed to do basic cleaning and preventive care at so-called “safety-net settings, ” qualified health centers, school-based health clinics and dental offices without a dentist present.

The work would have to be authorized by a dentist. Currently, Georgia law requires that a dentist actually be present in the facility for a hygienist to do such work.

“The passage of this legislation will make a difference in the lives of many Georgians who have little to no access to preventive dental care while increasing job opportunities for an existing skilled workforce,” said Suzanne Newkirk, president of the Georgia Dental Hygienists’ Association.

Supporters of the legislation say dentists feared it would open the way for legislation allowing dental hygienists to open their own practices and do dental care outside the supervision of a dentist.

Nicoleta Serban, a Georgia Tech researcher, told a legislative committee in August that more than 600,000 Georgia children with families on Medicaid do not live within what the state considers an acceptable distance of a dentist who accepts Medicaid patients.

Out of 4,044 dentists actively practicing in Georgia in 2012, about 22 percent accepted patients on Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled. Georgia ranked 49th in the country in dentists per capita, Serban said.

She said the state could save millions of dollars annually by delivering basic preventive dental care to children of Medicaid-eligible families who don’t get services now. Unterman, a former emergency room nurse, said toothaches are one of the leading reasons the poor come to hospital emergency rooms.

According to the legislation, 4,106 Georgians sought emergency dental care at Grady Memorial Hospital in 2016, costing $1.75 million to treat.

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