ODLRP signs 6 new contracts to help dentists pay off student loans while treating those in need

Dr. Katelyn Cody grew up in a low-income family in Toledo. Today, Cody is a general dentist who works at the Dental Center of Northwest Ohio, where she serves patients in need. She recently signed a contract with the ODLRP.

The Ohio Dentist Loan Repayment Program recently signed contracts with six new dentists who are serving in safety net dental clinics across Ohio.

Through the program, dentists sign two-year contracts for $50,000 of loan repayment for working in a designated shortage area and agreeing to provide dental services for patients without regard to the patient’s ability to pay. They can contract for optional third and fourth years and receive up to $35,000 in loan repayment for each of those years.

The ODLRP, which is administered by the Ohio Department of Health, is funded by a fee on dental licenses. Since the program began, $1,183,078 in ODLRP funding from the fee on dental licenses has been awarded, in addition to $684,500 in matching federal funding.

When dentists renewed their licenses for the 2018/2019 biennium, they paid a $40 fee toward the ODLRP, which was doubled from the original $20 fee and resulted in $280,000.

Because of this additional funding, the Ohio Department of Health will be able to open the application cycle in 2019 to contract additional dentists.

Since the program began in 2005, ODLRP dentists have seen 111,900 vulnerable patients (uninsured or on Medicaid), 153,000 total patients and provided 248,600 total visits.  24 dentists have completed service obligations through the ODLRP, and about two-thirds of them continue to work in the same or similar underserved areas of Ohio.

Currently, one dentist is finishing her fourth year in the ODLRP for a total of seven dentists who are currently contracted with the program. In addition to the ODLRP, several other loan repayment programs currently have contracted providers in Ohio:

  • National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program: 26 dentists, three hygienists
  • National Health Service Corps Scholars Program: four dentists
  • National Health Service Corps Student to Service Program: four dentists
  • Ohio Dental Hygienist Loan Repayment Program: nine hygienists

ODLRP helps dentist from low-income background serve people in need

Dr. Katelyn Cody grew up in a low-income family in Toledo. After her parents divorced, they both filed for bankruptcy and their house was foreclosed on.

“We had no choice but to live in our car for a while, eventually moving around several places throughout the inner city areas,” she said. “My father was a single parent working part-time because he is partially disabled, and we never fully recovered financially. I quickly learned that poverty was almost impossible to escape. Being in poverty was like being at the bottom of a hole. Every time it seemed like we were climbing out, we would slip and fall deeper into this hole, even when we thought that hole couldn’t get any deeper. This meant having to choose between paying utility bills or putting gas in the car, and not knowing if we were going to have a home. It was a cruel balance of scraping together money to pay the minimum for one bill, while being charged an overdraft fee from the bank, in addition to the late fee owed on the bill.  How were we able to save money when there was nothing left to save? It was a constant state of catching up and feeling stuck.”

Today, Cody is a general dentist who works at the Dental Center of Northwest Ohio. She worked three jobs and received a lot of financial assistance to pay for undergrad. By the time she graduated from dental school, she had about $260,000 in student loans.

Cody recently contracted with the ODLRP, which will help lighten the burden of her student loans while allowing her to serve in a Medicaid office where the fees they receive are lower compared to a private practice.

“The loan repayment is a help and big weight off my shoulders,” she said.

Cody said her experiences with poverty are why she chose to work in a safety net dental setting.

“These experiences taught me how to truly empathize with my patients,” she said. “As someone who has walked more than a mile in those worn down and holey shoes, I understand what it’s like living paycheck to paycheck and want to help people in need of financial assistance.”

Cody said working in an underserved area has taught her about the importance of bedside manner and active listening for the dentist-patient relationship.

“Not only is poverty a state of being, but it is also a feeling; an invisible yet oppressive weight carried on the shoulders at all times,” she said. “It’s the feeling of being beaten down every day, even on the good days, and constantly worrying about finances. Poverty is exhausting in every way. At times, it feels more like a therapy session than a dental appointment while my patients talk about their lives. Some patients have told me that out of all the health care providers they have had, I was the only provider that listened to them. When a patient tells me that ‘seeing you was the best part of my day,’ I know that I am delivering the care they truly deserve, and it encourages me more and more every day to brighten up their day.”

Helping her patients develop a care plan and overcome barriers has also been a priority for Cody. She said she works evening hours to accommodate patients who can’t make appointments in the day, and she also arranged a way to provide free care for a patient with a complicated medical disorder who had sold her furniture just to be seen and evaluated at the DCNWO.

ODLRP helps attract dentist to underserved area

The Ohio Dentist Loan Repayment Program helped the Rocking Horse Community Health Center in Springfield find a dentist to staff its dental clinic after searching for a year and a half and delaying its opening.

Dr. Mark Duffy, a general dentist, said working at a safety net dental clinic wasn’t his original plan after graduation. He started working at a corporate practice about an hour away from where he lives.

“One day a recruiter called me with a new opportunity,” Duffy said. “The new opportunity was in Springfield, Ohio, which happens to be my hometown.  I went to Rocking Horse Community Health Center to see the practice space and to meet the leadership team.  Rocking Horse CHC was looking for a dentist to open their dental practice, which was a new service line for the health center.  The dental practice is beautiful, has the latest technology, I had the potential to build a practice, and leadership mentioned that I may qualify for loan repayment.  All of these things factored into my decision to pursue being a safety net dentist.”

Duffy recently contracted with the ODLRP, and he said that the ODLRP has greatly relieved his stress of repaying student loans, and it is a huge incentive to work in a safety net clinic.

“As a graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine, I received a stellar education, but the price that goes with that education is not cheap,” he said. “The possibility of receiving loan repayment factored high in my decision to pursue this type of dental practice.”

Duffy said he plans to stay at Rocking Horse for a long time.

“I’ve only been working at Rocking Horse CHC for a year, but the amount of people we have been able to relieve of pain, improve smiles, provide sealants, fluoride treatments, and all aspects of comprehensive general dentistry to is truly amazing,” he said.

ODLRP helps dentist to pursue her passion

Dr. Heather Crockett-Miller said she has been passionate about working with underserved populations since she first applied to dental school.

“I always believed health care was a right not a privilege and wanted to use my education and skills to help those in need,” she said. “I enjoy making people smile, improving their health and especially being able to provide dental care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay.”

Crockett-Miller is director of dental services at Equitas Health, which aims to be the gateway to good health for those at risk of or affected by HIV, the LGBTQ community and for anyone seeking a welcoming health care home. 

She recently contracted with the ODLRP, which she said has allowed her to remain in public health and relieve some of the anxiety and stress from exorbitant student loan debt.

“Receiving the ODLRP will help ease the burden of my student loan debt and allow me to fully focus on my current position rather than seeking out additional moonlighting opportunities to assist with student loan payments,” she said.

Crockett-Miller said she has worked in public health dentistry for her whole career, and she plans to remain a safety net provider.

“I have had the opportunity to treat patients who have not visited the dentist for many years or only for emergency care,” she said. “I enjoy providing education on the preventative aspects of dentistry and have observed some major transformations in my patients.”