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REPORT: Dentist shortage in Tennessee

Story by Tennessee Public News Service

More than 1 million adults in Tennessee have no access to dental coverage, and only about half of kids enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program receive dental care, according to a new report.

Report author Kinika Young, senior director of health policy and advocacy at the Tennessee Justice Center, said Tennessee is one of three states that don’t provide dental care to Medicaid recipients. That’s on top of a chronic shortage of dental-health professionals, especially in rural areas.

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“We know that having a health insurance card or dental-care insurance is not the ‘end all, be all’ if you can’t find a provider who is close by, who accepts your insurance,” she said.

While some health departments offer dental services on a sliding-fee scale based on income, she said, capacity is limited due to funding. Out of the 47 health departments across Tennessee providing emergency oral care to uninsured adults, only 27 were staffed and regularly open in 2020, according to the report. Beginning in April, the state’s Medicaid program TennCare will provide dental benefits to pregnant and postpartum moms.

Young also pointed to the lucrative business of cosmetic dentistry, which tends to cluster practices in higher-income areas. She said she thinks the state should focus on strengthening the dental-care workforce in low-income and rural communities.

“And so, things like increasing provider reimbursement rates,” she said, “which that is included in the proposed budget that Gov. (Bill) Lee recently announced.”

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Young added that having a healthy smile shouldn’t be a luxury.

“It’s really a necessity,” she said, “and it’s really important for overall health that people maintain their oral health.”

A list of clinics and nonprofits across the state that offer low-cost and emergency dental services to people who are uninsured is on the Tennessee Justice Center’s website.

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