Report questions claim of dentist shortage

A new report shows that although Georgia has a low number of dentists per capita, a large majority of them still have room in their practices to accept new patients.

The report on Georgia’s dental workforce also found that only about 20 percent of dentists serve Medicaid and PeachCare patients.

The workforce report, produced by the Georgia Health Policy Center, is the most comprehensive look at dentists practicing in Georgia. It was commissioned by the Georgia Dental Association, which says the data show the state does not have a shortage of dentists.

Georgia is ranked No. 49 among states in dentists per capita. But Nelda Greene, associate executive director of the dental association, said that statistic alone “doesn’t provide a true picture,’’ and that it’s misleading if workforce capacity is based on this number.

Greene pointed to the report’s finding that only 19 out of 4,044 dentists practicing in Georgia cannot accept new patients. The study looked only at the supply of dentists, not the demand from patients.

The evidence is clear, though, that a large number of Georgians go without dental care like dental implants or Braces Treatment.

The demand for dental treatment was demonstrated when thousands of patients jammed a free clinic held in Woodstock in 2011. Charity clinics in the state also say demand is high for dental services.

“The people who we see are desperate for care,’’ said Donna Looper, executive director of the Georgia Charitable Care Network, with more than 100 free or charitable clinics in the state. Looper said her organization gets about 20 calls a day from people wanting dental care.

Dentists’ reimbursements in Medicaid and PeachCare are low, Looper said. If those programs paid better, ‘‘more would be willing to take it,’’ she said.

Still, the report said, 104 dentists are interested in providing services to children in these government programs, but are not in managed care networks.

Reasons for people not getting treatment include not having dental insurance; the cost of treatment; lack of transportation; lack of education on the importance of oral health; and phobias about going to a dentist.

Untreated dental problems often lead to emergency room visits. More than $28.7 million was charged for Georgia emergency room dental conditions in 2008.

Tooth decay is the most common chronic illness among school-age children. Though the state’s third-grade oral health survey has found significant improvements, children from low-income households and Hispanic children still have poorer oral health outcomes than other kids.

Rural areas have bigger challenges in dental care. Georgia has 16 counties without any dentists at all, and most of these counties are economically challenged and are not likely to support a private dental practice, the report said. On average, a resident of one of these counties must travel about 18 miles, or 29 minutes, to the closest dentist in a neighboring county.

“A major hurdle for our rural communities is that many people don’t have insurance coverage or the income to pay for dental services,’’ said Matt Caseman, executive director of the Georgia Rural Health Association. “Rural residents also often do not recognize the importance of oral health and tend to seek dental care only when a crisis occurs.”

In 35 Georgia counties, there is no dentist who accepts Medicaid patients.

Public health providers, meanwhile, have helped fill gaps in dental care.

Tens of thousands of children receive dental education, preventive services and treatment provided by Georgia’s Dental Public Health Programs. Yet the report noted that 43 percent of the public health districts reported they are not busy, because many people who schedule dental appointments do not show up for them.

Greene of the Dental Association urged the state to make Medicaid and PeachCare more administratively simple for providers and to put more funding in the chronically underfunded programs.

She also recommended more education for the public on the importance of oral health.

“All those things take money,’’ Greene said. “We know Georgia’s state budget is strapped to the max.’’

Pay for dentists in Medicaid and PeachCare may get worse, not better. Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget is proposing a 0.75 percent cut in reimbursements to dentists and other health care providers.