Panel backs bill to let hygienists give dental care to poor, elderly

A key Georgia House committee easily passed legislation Tuesday aimed at helping provide basic dental care to hundreds of thousands of poor children and elderly Georgians in nursing homes.

The Health and Human Services Committee approved House Bill 154, sponsored by the panel's chairwoman, state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, which would allow dental hygienists to provide basic treatment without a dentist being present.

Under the legislation, a dentist could agree to allow up to four hygienists to go into underserved areas, including nursing homes, to provide cleanings and other basic services.

The measure was aimed at providing care in areas of the state where there are few dentists. The hygienists could also provide cleanings at a dentist’s office without the dentist being present.

Georgia has one of the lowest rates of dentists per capita in the country, and most don’t accept patients on Medicaid, the state and federal health care program for the poor and disabled.

Cooper said the Georgia Dental Association publicly voiced support for a similar bill last year, but backers accused the politically powerful organization of having it stalled. It never came up for a final vote.

GDA officials told the committee Tuesday that they are supporting Cooper’s bill.

However, state Rep. Betty Price, R-Roswell, a member of the committee, sounded skeptical that dentists really back the measure.

“Down here you hear about all these deals being cut,” she said. “I have yet to find (a dentist) who thinks it is a sound practice of dentistry.”

Cooper responded: “We have the right to pass bills whether anyone agrees with them or not. We have the ability to do what we think is best for patient care.”

The concept should have fairly smooth sailing in the full House and Senate, where Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, has been a backer of the idea and is pushing a Senate version of the bill.