Virginia dental clinics awarded $200,000 to address dentist shortages
The Southern Dominion Health Services dental safety-net clinic in Lunenburg County. (April King)
As Virginia grapples with a shortage of dentists willing to accept Medicaid-enrolled and uninsured patients, a $200,000 award for five dental clinics aims to fill gaps in underserved areas across the state.
The five clinics include New Horizons Healthcare in Roanoke, Johnson Health Center in Amherst County, Eastern Shore Rural Health System, Martinsville/Henry County Community Dental Clinic and Southern Dominion Health System in Lunenburg County.
All five are what’s known as dental safety-net clinics, which receive federal funding to primarily provide free or low-cost care to low-income and uninsured patients in high-need communities.
But while the clinics are often the only source of affordable dental care for their patients, said Virginia Health Care Foundation Executive Director Debbie Oswalt, they usually don’t have the financial wherewithal to offer competitive incentives for dentists, many of whom go into private practice instead.
“The problem is, we don’t have enough dentists and so a lot of dental residents when they graduate have huge amounts of debt,” Oswalt said. “So it makes sense to go where the highest salary is.”
Dentists are also in short supply due in part to a wave of early retirements spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Oswalt said.
The recent funding — known as the “Sign Up, Pay Down” initiative anchored by the Virginia Health Care Foundation and the Delta Dental of Virginia Foundation — aims to provide extra incentives to help address recruitment challenges faced by the clinics.
Each clinic will receive a $40,000 recruitment package, which includes $20,000 in student loan repayment and a $20,000 signing bonus for hires in return for a two-year practice commitment.
CEO of Southern Dominion Health Services April King said her clinic has already secured a dentist through the initiative, which she said will be hugely beneficial in the primarily rural community it serves in Lunenburg.
“Without us being a community health center and offering some of the programs we do, they may go without dental services,” King said. “Most of our patients probably wouldn’t travel outside of the immediate service area to larger cities such as Richmond for dental care.”
The need for dental care and its importance for maintaining good health is far greater than most people realize, Oswalt said.
The awards are part of a broader effort to make dental care more accessible for Virginia residents, Oswalt said. The state expanded access to comprehensive dental care benefits for pregnant Medicaid enrollees in 2015 and for enrollees aged 21 and older in 2021.
“One of the best things that Virginia ever did was to have this Medicaid dental benefit for adults,” Oswalt said. “But it’s only so good if you don’t have dentists on hand to actually provide the services, and the dental safety net is one of the main providers of Medicaid dental services.”
Virginia also increased the reimbursements dentists can receive for services provided to patients enrolled in Medicaid last July. Prior to the increase, many dentists said they were losing money treating patients on Medicaid, leaving little incentive to accept it.
Oswalt said $100,000 of funding for the awards came from contributions from dental health plan companies United Concordia and DentaQuest, competitors in their market. The Delta Dental of Virginia Foundation also contributed $100,000 through its dental loan repayment program.
“The fact that they all have come together to try to solve this problem and help move things forward in this post-pandemic time is really fabulous,” Oswalt said.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the clinics offer competitive incentives, not just salaries, for dentists.
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.