The program has only $500,000, enough to place just two to five dentists in the two-year pilot period, but it was endorsed by the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, whose 5th District covers the coal counties of Appalachian Kentucky, and it was announced immediately before an executive committee meeting of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the nonprofit that Rogers and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear created to lift the area's economy after massive layoffs in the coal industry.
"Rogers' endorsement of the pilot program suggests he may use it as the basis for federal appropriations or legislation to help other rural areas that need dentists or even doctors," Rural Blog Publisher Al Cross writes for Kentucky Health News.
Rogers said the program should send some new dentists back home to in his district, the nation's most rural. He said dental-care access in the region has been poor because "We've shipped out our talent for their education and the rest of their productive life" and given them little incentive to return. Meanwhile, more than half of Eastern Kentucky children aged 2-11 have tooth decay, he said.
"A lot of our graduates at UK and U of L really want to return home to practice," said Dr. M. Raynor Mullins, project leader of the Appalachian Rural Dental Education Project of the University of Kentucky Center for Oral Health. "I hear that from them every day, but high student debt is a real barrier." The University of Louisville, which has the state's other dental school, will also participate.
The shortage of dentists in Appalachian Kentucky is often cited as one reason the region and the state have such poor oral health. Another obstacle is that many dentists won't accept Medicaid, citing low reimbursements. Dentists in the program will be required to accept Medicaid.
More dentists than ever are needed to treat the hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians newly covered by Medicaid after the state's expansion of the federal-state program. State Health Secretary Audrey Haynes said 270,000 of the nearly 500,000 children enrolled in Medicaid visited a dentist last year.