Alleviating Virginia’s dental care workforce crisis – The Virginian-Pilot

Good oral health is crucial to overall well-being, but access to quality care remains an ongoing challenge for many Virginians. For example, Virginia’s Medicaid program offers comprehensive dental coverage to all members, but just over half of enrolled children saw a dentist last year — and even fewer adults received care. Access issues are multifaceted, with those most in need often facing barriers such as lack of transportation, limited translation resources and the inability to take time off work for appointments.

There is one pervasive challenge related to all of these issues, one that we will focus head-on in 2024: Virginia’s oral health workforce is in crisis.

The Virginia Health Catalyst’s Future of Public Oral Health Taskforce, a statewide group working to ensure everyone in the Commonwealth has equal access to comprehensive health care, including oral health, recently released the Virginia Oral Health Workforce Gap Assessment, which two critical findings emerge: shortages of oral health care professionals to serve all individuals, regardless of insurance status, and a shortage of health care providers serving uninsured and Medicaid-insured Virginians throughout the Commonwealth.

The gap assessment provides actionable recommendations for policy changes to address the workforce crisis; during the recent session of the General Assembly, lawmakers and the governor took steps in support of these goals, including:

To make it easier for dentists and dental hygienists to practice in Virginia: Virginia will join a multi-state Dental and Dental Hygienist Compact that will streamline licensing for dental professionals from other participating states, making access to care easier.

To encourage dentists to participate in Medicaid: Medicaid dental providers will receive a 3% reimbursement rate increase, building on last year’s substantial 30% increase.

Investing in dental education: Funds appropriated in the Virginia budget will support the construction of a new building for the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry, the state’s only dental school.

Growing the healthcare workforce: The state budget also includes investments in health workforce initiatives, including Virginia’s Area Health Education Centers, which aim to address shortages in underserved regions.

As task force members make progress toward our collective goals, we have valuable resources at our disposal, including the CareQuest Institute’s Medicaid Adult Dental Coverage Checker. The newly updated interactive dashboard is a powerful tool that provides insights from states with similar Medicaid programs facing similar challenges. By exploring successful strategies available in the checker’s complementary tools and resources and implemented elsewhere, we can adapt and implement solutions tailored to the needs of our own communities. That knowledge puts us in a stronger position to continue to advance policy solutions to improve oral health.

The ongoing efforts of the Task Force on the Future of Public Health will adopt some of the promising practices of other states and continue to drive positive change. In the coming months, task force members will work with Virginians across the Commonwealth to increase the number of education and training opportunities for oral health professionals, invest in school-based oral health programs to make it easier for students to access dental care, and incentives to encourage clinical providers to provide care in underserved areas of the state.

Together, we can leverage these resources and collective expertise to ensure that every Virginian receives the quality oral care he or she deserves.

Sarah Bedard Holland of Richmond is CEO at Virginia Health Catalyst. Dr. Kaz Rafia, DDS, MBA, MPH, of Boston is chief dental officer and executive vice president at the CareQuest Institute for Oral Health.

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