New state program awards $10.5M in grants to dentists

The Department of Health Care Service’s new program designed to expand access to care for Medi-Cal patients has awarded $10.5 million to 40 dentists to pay student loan debt.

Approximately 1,300 health care providers, including 350 dentists, applied to the CalHealthCares program, which offers up to $300,000 in debt relief in exchange for meeting certain criteria. Part of that criteria requires applicants to maintain a 30% or more Medi-Cal patient caseload for five years.

“Expanding access to care will ensure California’s most vulnerable residents receive oral health care, which is essential to overall health,” said Del Brunner, DDS, CDA president. “We know student loan debt is one of the biggest financial hurdles a dentist may face and this program will allow practitioners to follow their passion of providing care for the underserved.”

The awardees will provide services to Medi-Cal patients in 20 counties throughout California. Most of the awardees are general dentists and nine are specialty dental providers. Additionally, the awardees have varied practice settings, including community clinic or Federally Qualified Health Centers, academic settings, group practice and private practice.

Dentists who have graduated from dental school within the past five years or those willing to relocate their practices to an area of highest need are eligible to apply for the program created by the Proposition 56 Medi-Cal Physicians and Dentists Loan Repayment Act of 2018.

“Without the burden of student loan debt, dentists have more economic freedom that allows them to make the commitment to serve the Medi-Cal population’s dental needs,” said DHCS Director Jennifer Kent.

The average educational debt for all indebted dental school graduates in the class of 2018 was $251,869 for public schools and $326,133 for private schools, according to the American Dental Education Association.

A total of $340 million, including $50 million for dentists, has been allocated to the CalHealthCares program from revenue generated by Proposition 56, a voter-approved tobacco tax that CDA sponsored in 2016. CDA has worked closely with the DHCS to establish the program using some of the tax funds. The announcement of awardees, which also includes 247 physicians, is the first of at least five rounds of funding.

In January 2020, CalHealthCares will accept applications for its next round of awards. For more information on the CalHealthCares grants, visit phcdocs.org.

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As part of the finalized 2019-20 California state budget, the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom approved a continuation of supplemental Medi-Cal provider rates, including significant dollars for dentists serving Medi-Cal patients. An additional $20 million was dedicated to dentists through a recently launched student loan repayment program.

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Through the improved Medi-Cal Dental Program, more than 13 million individuals are eligible for dental benefits, and a streamlined application and significant rate increases are prompting more dentists to join the program as providers. The changes follow years of action to improve the program, including CDA’s efforts to educate the public and policymakers about the importance of good oral health care. Jennifer Kent, director of the California Department of Health Care Services, in this Q&A discusses the program’s recent changes and what dentists can expect as providers.