Lawmakers back bills providing dental care for poor, elderly in Ga.

Both chambers of the Georgia Legislature easily passed legislation Friday to provide basic dental care to hundreds of thousands of children and elderly Georgians who have limited access to a dentist.

The challenge now may be how quickly they can come to final agreement.

Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said she sponsored Senate Bill 12 to provide needed care to the state's most vulnerable citizens, many of whom live in areas with few dentists. The bill would allow dental hygienists to provide cleanings and other basic services without a dentist being present.

“The most important thing to me is taking care of vulnerable children in schools and vulnerable adults in nursing homes,” Unterman said. “Cleaning your teeth is one of the basic necessities in life…to prevent gum disease and promote nutrition.”

Under the legislation, a dentist could agree to allow up to four hygienists to go into underserved areas, including nursing homes and rural health clinics. The work would have to be authorized by a dentist. Currently, Georgia law requires that a dentist actually be present in the facility for a hygienist to do such work.

Passage came as House Bill 154, sponsored by that chamber's Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, received a unanimous floor vote. Both versions of the legislation now switch chambers for consideration.The only difference between the two versions is a request by the Senate for state health officials to track how the program is used.

Cooper and Unterman purposely filed joint bills to increase the legislation’s chances of passage. They both support the effort, which ran into opposition last year from the dentists’ lobby at the Capitol.