House Bill 463 expands Ohio Dentist Loan Repayment Program

House Bill 463, which was signed into law at the end of the year, has many provisions aimed at improving access to care. One such provision is the expansion of the Ohio Dentist Loan Repayment Program (ODLRP).

The ODLRP was created in 2003 and is fully funded by Ohio dentists. It provides loan repayment for dentists who practice in designated shortage areas, treat Medicaid patients and provide care to patients regardless of their ability to pay.

When dentists renew their licenses every two years, they each pay a $20 surcharge that goes directly to the ODLRP. HB 463 doubles the capacity of the program by increasing the fee to $40. The Ohio Dental Association House of Delegates voted in support of advocating for this fee increase. With about 7,000 licensed dentists in Ohio, about $280,000 will go toward the program every two years.

“The ODLRP helps underserved populations by placing highly trained and educated dentists into their communities to give them access to competent and comprehensive dental care,” said Dr. Ben Lamielle, who participated in the ODLRP at the Piketon Family Health Center from 2005-07. “The care the patients receive isn’t just about alleviating pain and infection. I provided the whole gamut of care when I participated in the program. We improved patient’s smiles so that they had a greater sense of self and removed a barrier that may have been holding them back from pursuing employment or educational opportunities. Having a dentist provide oral health education for the patients is also incredibly helpful to these populations, especially for the kids.”

Lamielle said one of his favorite parts was developing relationships with his patients and helping them to understand the importance of oral health.

“To have a patient who had maybe never been to the dentist or who had only gone to have teeth removed previously and to get them comfortable and educated enough to start coming to see us regularly was really rewarding,” he said.

Lamielle now has a private practice, but volunteers his time at two clinics in Ohio that serve patients in need, and he also participates in the Dental OPTIONS program, in which dentists provide discounted or donated care to low income patients.

Since 2005, 26 dentists have participated in the ODLRP and provided care to tens of thousands of low income patients.

Dr. Gabriel Russo participated in the ODLRP at the Tuscarawas County Health Department from 2010-13.

“There was only one other place in the county that took Medicaid, and more importantly we did a sliding fee scale, so what patients paid was based on their income,” Russo said. “Those are the people who slip between the cracks – maybe an older person on a fixed income.”

He said he thinks it’s important to help those people who do not qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford to go to a private practice. He has been able to help many people in this situation, but one patient in particular that stood out to him was a woman who worked at a fast food restaurant and qualified for care based on a sliding fee.

“She is part of the working poor. She works hard, and she finally got the smile she deserved,” Russo said.

Russo still works at the health department two days a month in addition to working five days a week at his own practice in Hartville, which is a designated shortage area.

Russo said the loan repayment program helps attract students to designated shortage areas. While part of the incentive for him was financial, he said it’s also very important to him to help people in need.

Areas that have been served by the ODLRP include Akron, Barberton, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Dover, Freeport, Jackson, Loudonville, Mansfield, Napoleon, Piketon, Springfield, Toledo and Zanesville.

 “The ODLRP affected me deeply as a dentist,” Lamielle said. “It provided me with an opportunity to hone my skills as a dentist and communicator while still being able to adequately provide for my family. It greatly lessened the burden of school loan debt that most young dentists incur.”