THE ISSUES Dental Care

Candidates Recognize Virginians' Dental Care Needs

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

One in a series of articles about issues being discussed by the Democratic candidates for governor of Virginia, who will stand for the primary Tuesday.

It's a problem that has been documented over the past decade by state researchers, volunteers and reporters, and experienced with excruciating clarity in rural communities across Virginia: Many people can't find or afford a dentist.

"You're astounded at what people tolerate simply because they don't have the resources," said Terry D. Dickinson, a dentist who has spent year s helping to run makeshift clinics as executive director of the Virginia Dental Association. "Understand, there's nothing quite like that kind of pain. These folks come in and are very stoic and don't complain. Just seeing them, it breaks your heart that they had to put up with that kind of problem."

Rotten teeth and infected gums teeming with bacteria can worsen diabetes and are linked to heart disease, and in extreme instances can be fatal.

Virginia's three Democratic candidates for governor have promised progress.

But the recession is making things worse, forcing budget cuts that gutted a loan repayment and scholarship program set up to lure dentists to poor areas, such as Tazewell County in the state's southwest. The program's $325,000 budget was slashed, and by summer officials are expecting to lose at least a dozen dentists working with the indigent across Virginia. The ranks of state public health dentists have also shrunk since 1990.

Former delegate Brian Moran has pushed the issue most aggressively. In campaign speeches, he cites a trip he took to a yearly volunteer clinic in Wise County. He said a lobbyist called him over at the fairgrounds crowded with patients.

"He says, 'Do you mind blood?' As we turned the corner, I'm like, 'What exactly am I getting into?' It's one of those campaign trail experiences you don't soon forget," Moran told one audience. He saw rows of chairs surrounded by technicians, and dentists forced to extract teeth.

Moran has called for expanding government dental coverage and offering incentives to providers to stay in rural areas. He said he would invest in clinics in remote areas "so that it's not a matter of one weekend per year."

In his campaign's "Business Plan for Virginia," former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe cites a similar idea from a southwest Virginia voter. "Folks shouldn't have to wait a year for that kind of care," the plan quotes the voter as saying.

State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, who has cited his rural roots in the campaign, supports loan forgiveness plans for dentists and dental hygienists in under-served areas, and he has co-sponsored legislation to allow hygienists to provide prescribed care without a dentist present.

The candidates are less clear, though, on the projected price tag, and exactly where they would find the money.

"Terry has said that he will pay for his programs by growing the economy and creating jobs," said McAuliffe spokeswoman Lis Smith.

The Deeds campaign did not cite a source of funding.

Moran said he would seek available federal money and generate funds elsewhere by seeking to ban trans fats in schools, which would save on long-term health-care costs and allow money to be spent elsewhere. Expanding dental spending makes fiscal sense "because good dental care minimizes other related health risks which balloon other costs," spokesman Jesse Ferguson said.

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