ADA asks House to increase funding level for Oral Health Workforce Development Program

The American Dental Association is asking lawmakers to increase the authorized funding level for the Oral Health Workforce Development Program to help address difficulties with the recruitment and retention of allied dental professionals during COVID-19.

In a Feb. 22 letter to leaders of the House of Representatives, ADA President Cesar R. Sabates, D.D.S., and Executive Director Raymond A. Cohlmia, D.D.S., said the majority of dental practices are small businesses and while assistance from Congress allowed many dental practices to rebound in 2021, the continued challenges of the pandemic have led to increasing worries that dental practices and the profession will not fully recover in 2022.

They referenced a recent survey by the ADA's Health Policy Institute that found nearly 16% of general dentists expressed skepticism about the recovery of their practice. The survey also found that in August 2021, 90% of dentist owners reported that it is "extremely or very challenging" to recruit dental hygienists and 85% found it "extremely or very challenging" to fill dental assistant positions when compared to before the pandemic.

"These difficulties in the recruitment and retention of dental workforce threaten both the health of dental practices and the health of American patients who rely on an adequate dental workforce for access to oral health care," Drs. Sabates and Cohlmia wrote. "In fact, 40% of dentist owners said that vacancies in their offices are limiting their practice's ability to see more patients.

To match the dental workforce needs according to each state's individual needs, the ADA leaders pointed to grants such as the Grants to States to Support Oral Health Workforce Activities program, saying "state-based programs can provide immediate solutions to recruitment and retention problems in the dental workforce brought about by the COVID-19 public health emergency."

Drs. Sabates and Cohlmia also urged lawmakers to consider student loan reform to improve recruitment and retention of the dentist workforce. They noted that in 2019, most fourth-year dental students (82.4%) graduated with loans averaging $292,1693.

"Addressing the financial challenge of student debt may also incentivize oral health care professionals to work in, and stay in, areas in desperate need of oral health care," they wrote.

"The nation's dentists greatly appreciate the support Congress has already provided, and is grateful for your continued support of the dental profession during these trying times," the letter concluded. "We look forward to working with you to address oral health workforce shortages both during the current emergency when problems are so acute, and in the future as we seek to ensure dental practices are able to sustain and expand patients' access to oral health care.

The letter also credited the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions for its recent hearing, Recruiting, Revitalizing & Diversifying: Examining the Health Care Workforce Shortage, for helping illuminate health care workforce issues and solutions.

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