Lawmaker blasts dental group over hygienist bill

The chairman of a Georgia House committee blasted the Georgia Dental Association on Tuesday for what she called the group’s unwillingness to discuss a bill to let dental hygienists practice in safety-net settings without a dentist present.

“I’ve never seen such hostility’’ toward a piece of legislation, said Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee.

The clearly angry Cooper said that except for the famously contentious certificate-of-need battles over hospital construction regulations, “I have never seen such unwillingness to sit down and talk” about a bill.

Cooper tabled the bill at issue, House Bill 684, after more than an hour of questions from lawmakers and testimony from proponents of the legislation. After tabling the bill, she did not allow Dental Association officials to speak to the committee, though they requested to do so.

Rep. Sharon Cooper
Rep. Cooper

Cooper said she would bring the bill back up for discussion next week, and would let the dental group’s officials speak at that time.

The legislation would allow hygienists to clean teeth in safety-net clinics, nursing homes, federally qualified health centers and school-based health clinics without a dentist present if they have authorization from a dentist to do so. Currently, a dentist must be present in the facility for the hygienist to do that work.

Cooper defended the bill against multiple questions from lawmakers, saying that under the present situation, “a lot of children in this state can’t get their teeth cleaned’’ because of a lack of access to services.

“All I’ve gotten from the Dental Association is no, no, no,’’ Cooper said. “I’ve just had it.’’

Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta), the bill’s main sponsor, said access to dental care is poor in some areas of Georgia. “More people will get care’’ if the bill is approved, Martin said.

Proponents of the legislation say hygienists can legally clean teeth without a dentist’s direct supervision in 45 states.

In Georgia, 118 of the state’s 159 counties don’t have enough dentists, the hygienists point out. And in 2013, they say, 66,000 Georgians sought care at a hospital emergency room for dental diseases that could have been prevented, at a cost to the state of nearly $47 million.

Some lawmakers, though, expressed doubts about quality of care and liability issues if the bill passed.

Russel Carlson, representing the Georgia Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group, voiced support for the bill.


And Jennie Fleming, a dental hygienist for more than 30 years, said that with the current access problems in dental care, “I have seen children in so much pain. They were missing school and getting poor grades.”

She noted that Georgia already allows hygienists in public health departments to clean teeth without having a dentist present, if they are authorized by a supervising dentist.

“No one has ever died from having their teeth cleaned,” Fleming said.