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Democrats & Republicans Unite To Expand Access To Dental Care In North Carolina

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at August 18, 2021

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed out of the U.S. Senate on August 10 with 19 Republicans joining 50 Democrats in voting for it. While that bill now awaits House consideration, it so far has garnered among the most bipartisan support that any unscheduled, non-emergency federal measure has received in more than a decade. This rare instance of cross-ideological cooperation comes at the same time that bipartisanship is breaking out in one of the country’s most hotly contested political battlegrounds: North Carolina.

North Carolina has established itself as a national leader in tax reform, regulatory reform, and sustainable budgeting over the past decade. In recent weeks, both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly have approved new budgets that again cut personal and corporate income tax rates with enough Democratic votes to overcome a gubernatorial veto. The bipartisan approval of new budgets in both chambers has taken place in the same summer in which Tar Heel State lawmakers also took bipartisan action to address an area where the state is deficient, which is access to dental care.

On July 23, Governor Roy Cooper (D) signed Senate Bill 146, legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Perry (R) that will expand access to dental care in North Carolina and increase patient convenience by permitting greater utilization of teledentistry. SB 146, which was approved by both chambers of the General Assembly in July with bipartisan and near unanimous support, will establish a regulatory framework for teledentistry and permit oral hygienists to administer local anesthesia under the supervision of a licensed dentist.

Reforms like SB 146 that expand access to dental care make sense anywhere, but are especially needed in North Carolina, where all of the state’s 100 counties are categorized as either a full or partial Dental Health Professional Shortage Area. The American Dental Association, in a study published earlier this year, points out that North Carolina has approximately 54 dentists for every 100,000 residents, while the national average is roughly 61 dentists per 100,000. Passage of SB 146 will help rectify North Carolina’s shortage of dental care and, as such, is being touted by industry leaders.

“I applaud Senator Perry, our lawmakers, and the governor for their leadership in considering new ways to expand access to oral health in the state,” said Dr. Michael Riccobene, founder of Riccobene and Associates, a North Carolina-based dental care provider. “Ensuring North Carolinians have access to the vital dental care they need to stay healthy is critical to the health of our communities. As our state continues to grow, so will the need for high-quality dental care. Teledentistry and other innovations will allow our industry to meet this increased demand.”

Expanding access to dental care is about more than just preventing cavities and making sure smiles look nice. It is now well documented that oral health is critical to overall health.

“Oral health is an important part of overall wellness and if left untreated, tooth decay can lead to a whole host of other complications,” noted a July 20 North Carolina Health News article. “Cavities have been linked to heart disease, pneumonia and sepsis, for example. Pregnant women with poor oral health have been found to have a higher risk of premature births and other complications.”

The Mayo Clinic also warns there are a number of diseases and conditions linked to poor oral health, such respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, various cancers, and complications in pregnancy.

“Taking care of your oral health is an investment in your overall health,” notes the Mayo Clinic website. The Mayo Clinic underscores that “without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to oral infections, such as tooth decay and gum disease.” 

North Carolina isn’t the only state where lawmakers have taken action to expand access to dental care through greater utilization of teledentistry. A similar bill was approved in North Dakota in April. By allowing hygienists to administer local anesthesia with the enactment of SB 146, North Carolina lawmakers are permitting something that is already authorized 44 states. 

“Teledentistry has been, and will continue to be, an important tool in helping providers reach patients who wouldn’t traditionally have access to care,” explains the NC Oral Health Collaborative. “It can connect dental care teams in non-traditional dental settings, such as schools and long-term care facilities. Teledentistry can also expand service options in rural North Carolina — where providers are more scarce.”

There are still other reforms that North Carolina lawmakers can pass that will help expand access to dental care, particularly through regulatory adjustments that make North Carolina a more attractive market for new care providers to enter. But passage of SB 146 is a smart and, as its bipartisan support indicates, non-controversial first step in the right direction.

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