Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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FL Lawmakers Getting Serious About Dental Health:  Add $500k for 2024 Mission of Mercy; $2 mil for Oral Health Education

Photo: Little girl with headline: Learn about the tooth fairy
Photo: FL Dental Association - click to learn about the Tooth Fairy | Observer graphic

Trimmel GomesFLORIDA – On May 5, 2023, the Florida Legislature voted on the state budget, the only legislation the Florida Constitution requires the legislature to pass.

Hardly noticed in the record $117 billion budget was $2 million in recurring funding to promote oral health and support students studying dentistry. The funding is to implement a Dental Student Loan Repayment Program to encourage graduating dentists to practice in Florida and serve low-income patients in rural and underserved areas.

Joe Anne Hart, chief legislative officer for the Florida Dental Association, called the funding a "win-win" because those who graduate with an average of $300,000 in student loan debt can now tap into receiving $50,000 a year to repay their loans, up to five years of participating in the program.

"This would be an opportunity for them to start practicing and not have to worry about that obligation of repaying that loan," she said, "and still being able to help those in need in underserved communities."

Florida is one of only five states without a Dental Student Loan Repayment Program.

Dentists with link to FL Mission of MercyAnother $500,000 in the budget would support the 2024 Florida Mission of Mercy, an annual two-day dental event by the Florida Dental Association Foundation to provide treatment for people without access to dental care.

Ms. Hart said the Florida Mission of Mercy, held in a different city each year, has provided more than 13,000 patients with donated dental care valued at more than $13 million. She said the Foundation has operated and funded the program on its own and is now thankful to receive some state support.

"It is a free event for those getting the services, but as you know, providing the care isn't free," she said. "So the funding will go towards building costs, material costs - you know - equipment, all the things that will be needed to set up that temporary dental clinic."

The American Children's Campaign said in a statement that dental care "access for children is dire as it is for adults."

It noted that the Florida Dental Association had identified dental-care shortage areas in 66 of Florida's 67 counties.

Governor DeSantis has not signed the budget. It is not expected that he will remove these items.

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