SIKESTON -- Supporters of a proposed Senate bill say the legislation will benefit nonprofit dental clinics operations in Missouri, but Cheryl White, executive director of Southeast Missouri Health Network, isn't so convinced.
"It does nothing to benefit the public good (which is the purpose of the Dental Practice Act) and may in fact limit access to dental services at a time when such services are limited in the state for all Missourians," White said.
Nonprofits have provided dental services in Missouri for over 30 years while Semo Health Network has provided dental services in New Madrid since 1999 and Kennett since 2000, White pointed out. Sikeston Dental opened in January 2004 and already has a four-month waiting list.
"We have also been very fortunate recently to have private dentists in the communities we serve come to our clinics and treat our dental patients to address the high demand of needs," White said.
Senate Bill 1122 was passed last month in the Senate and sent to the House which had its first reading Tuesday.
White went to the Senate's open hearing on the bill in Jefferson City and admitted even she didn't understand any of the reasoning behind the bill.
But Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, told the Associated Press last month the legislation is necessary because current law allows dentists only to open clinics and hire dentists. He said some nonprofit clinics are operating outside the law now and would be shut down if challenged. The bill allows those clinics to obtain a permit from the state dental board -- something White and her colleagues don't feel is necessary.
"We are already under federal guidelines and guidelines by the Dental Board and Internal Revenue Services. We have so many guidelines that we don't need to be overseen by a small group such as the Missouri Dental Board," White pointed out. In comparison to other state dental practice acts and the Missouri Healing Arts Practice Act, this is both unprecedented and unnecessary, especially given the fact that nonprofit dentists are already fully licensed and subject to oversight of the Dental Board, White noted.
"I feel this proposed legislation reflects 'perceived' competition between non-profits and private dental practices. I do not find this to be true when a large percentage of the 12,500 patients we served in 2003 were Medicaid or indigent patients," White said, adding that outside of Semo Health Network's five-county service area, there is only one dentist that takes Medicaid.
Semo Health Network serves its patients with developing strong community partnerships in the medical and dental field not through competition, White emphasized.
Another section of the bill provides that such nonprofit clinics can serve only those on Medicaid, in the state children's health insurance program or individuals with income lower than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which for 2004 would amount to $18,620.
White said the legislation also limits patient choice and fosters the creation of a two-tier health system: one for lower income individuals and one for the more affluent. "Many of our patients will especially lose the right to choose their dental service because many of our patients come to us because of a dentist who works for us," White explained. "They may only live a block or two away from us and it's just convenient for them. And if they have insurance, they'll have to go somewhere else."
If the bill passes it will take effect Aug. 28 and Semo Health Network could ultimately lose an estimated 5 to 7 percent of its current patients, White said.
"Aug. 28 is my birthday," White noted. "I hope I don't get this bill for my present."