Bill Could Mean More Teeth Cleanings For Poor Georgians

Leah Brannon cleans a patient's teeth at the Mercy Health Clinic in Athens.
Credit Johnny Kauffman / WABE
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A long-standing dispute at the state capitol may be near its end. Lobbyists for dentists and hygienists say they’ve reached a deal that would give hundreds of thousands of Georgians with low incomes better access to teeth cleanings, including many children.

A 2016 Georgia Tech study found 865,000 children on public insurance would have to travel further than the state standard for cleanings: 30 minutes or 30 miles in the city, 45 minutes or 45 miles in rural areas.

Additionally, the study found, the parents of 500 thousand children will likely choose not to pay for dental care because they can’t afford it, or don’t have insurance.

Experts say these findings show major barriers for Georgians to get preventative dental services, like cleanings. Yet the state is one of only three others where, for the most part, hygienists can’t clean teeth unless a dentist is in the building.

“For us to not be allowed to just go ahead and [clean teeth] makes no sense to me,” says Leah Brannon, a hygienist and manager at the Mercy Health Clinic in Athens, which treats mostly patients with low incomes and no insurance.

Brannon says the clinic isn’t open every day because it doesn’t have the right staff. There are plenty of hygienists, but not enough of the volunteer dentists required to be in the building for the hygienists to clean teeth.

The deal at the state capitol between dentists and hygienists comes in the form of a bill filed by Rep. Sharon Cooper, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. If passed, it would allow hygienists to clean teeth without a dentist in the building.

Brannon says it would mean they could be open five days a week, and see more patients, like Florrie Sue Hardigree.

“I have Medicare, but they don’t pay dental,” Hardigree said. “It’s hard living on social security to afford to go anywhere to have any work done.”

As a child the 82-year-old rarely said she rarely had her teeth cleaned.

“For them to smile even, that sounds so simple, but we have so many patients that just say ‘I can’t even smile anymore,’” Brannon said. “For us to be able to take that, and fix those teeth for them, and then hand them a mirror that means the world to us.”

Brannon said the more people that get regular cleanings, the fewer will suffer through issues that require major surgeries.

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