The Ohio Department of Health (ODH) recently announced that it has contracted with the Dental Lifeline Network to operate the Dental OPTIONS Program.

Dental OPTIONS – Ohio Partnership to Improve Oral Health through Access to Needed Services – is a partnership between the Ohio Dental Association and the Ohio Department of Health that provides dental care to patients who don’t qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford dental care. Dentists volunteer to provide care in their own offices to patients that have been pre-screened through the OPTIONS program.

“The OPTIONS program is a portal for low income patients to gain access to the dental care system,” said Dr. Hal Jeter, who has served as an OPTIONS provider for many years and was part of the OPTIONS Steering Committee. “In previous versions of the program patients could be treated at greatly reduced fees or even at no cost, depending on their situation. OPTIONS gives dentists the opportunity to provide basic dental care for those who would otherwise not be able to obtain it.”

Due to significant funding reductions for the program, the ODH has been providing very limited case management for OPTIONS patients on a waiting list since 2016, only completing care for approximately 15-20 patients per year. When COVID-19 began in 2020, program operations were put on hold and have not yet resumed.

More than 400 patients are currently on the waiting list.

“We all realize that there remains a significant problem with access to care,” Jeter said. “Introducing alternative solutions such as dental therapists is not the answer. Keeping the dentist at the helm of the dental team is essential and OPTIONS is a mechanism to safely and properly extend that care to those in greatest need. Don’t get me wrong, OPTIONS will NOT solve the access to care problem. However, it does send a message to the public, to our legislators, and throughout our profession that dentists do care and we are willing to put feet to our words in helping find a definitive solution.”

Through the new partnership, the Dental Lifeline Network will provide a full time case manager who will help screen and coordinate care for patients. The program will aim to close about 200 cases per year. OPTIONS will continue to serve the working poor, but the bulk of the work will be with the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions and/or disabilities. Dental Lifeline Network will also support a toll-free number for the program.

“I have several stories about patients I’ve met through OPTIONS but my mind always goes back to one specifically,” Jeter said. “She was in her 40s and had been a victim of domestic violence. She had lost her home, her dignity and her smile. We had a very compassionate lab who helped us with a partial denture to restore her missing dentition. The broken person we met a couple of months previously left our office that day … smiling.”

Dental Lifeline Network will work in collaboration with the ODA to survey dentists to reassess which dentists are interested in continuing to volunteer for the program. They will also recruit dentists, specialists and labs.

“I became an OPTIONS provider in 1997 and was privileged to serve on the steering committee when the program was operating at its peak,” Jeter said. “My decision to participate in OPTIONS was basically this – to give back and to pay forward. I know that sounds like a ‘platitude’ but, have we not all benefited directly and indirectly from those around us who pour into our lives? Serving the community in this manner is our way of saying ‘thank you.’”

Dental Lifeline Network is a national non-profit organization located in Denver, Colorado providing case management in all 50 states through their Donated Dental Services (DDS) program.

The Dental OPTIONS program started in 1997, and from that time until 2016 more than $21 million in donated or discounted care was provided to 12,161 patients. In 2016, nearly 1,000 dentists were enrolled as OPTIONS providers.

“Knowing the successes OPTIONS has been able to celebrate should motivate us to set our goals even higher for the future of this very worthwhile program,” Jeter said.

An advisory committee including the ODA, ODH and Dental Lifeline Network will meet periodically to discuss program operations and strategies. Dental Lifeline Network is contracted to run the OPTIONS program through June 30, 2023.

Watch your inbox and future issues of the “ODA Today” for more details about how to become an OPTIONS provider.