The legislation would increase funding for National Health Service Corps.

The American Dental Association (ADA) is supporting new legislation aimed at improving the health workforce shortage and health disparities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In an August 28 letter to Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., ADA president Chad P. Gehani and executive director Kathleen T. O’Loughlin praised the lawmakers for introducing S 4055, the Strengthening America’s Health Care Readiness Act, saying “this historic investment” in the National Health Service Corps and National Disaster Medical System will help bolster health emergency surge capacity and “restore the pipeline of dental professionals” and other healthcare providers needed to tackle existing health workforce shortages.

They told the senators that the ADA is committed to helping expand the availability of National Health Service Corps scholarships and loan repayments for dental professionals who agree to work in NHSC-approved sites.

“Expansion of these NHSC programs would not only address existing health workforce shortages throughout the country, but would also tackle the issue of student loan indebtedness,” said Drs. Gehani and O’Loughlin. “Student debt associated with graduate dental education is a substantial barrier in meeting our nation’s oral health workforce needs. The burden of paying off student loans, which can average more than $200,000, has driven dental professionals toward higher-paying specialties and communities, leaving many areas with gaps in availability of dental services and access to oral healthcare.”

The two explained that the Strengthening America’s Health Care Readiness Act would address these challenges and encourage dental professionals and promising dental students to practice in underserved areas by providing loan repayment and scholarships in exchange for a service commitment. It would also give priority to individuals who continue to practice, even after their fulfillment of obligated service, and provide increased funding amounts based upon the site where the dental professionals completed their NHSC contractual duties.

The doctors also pointed out that COVID-19 has “magnified the alarming racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes, which is a manifestation of our nation’s health workforce shortages in underserved urban and rural communities.”

“These inequities could be addressed by expanding the representation of minority populations in health careers,” they added. “The bill’s inclusion of the [40%] in set-aside funding for racial and ethnic minorities and students from low-income urban and rural areas will address existing inequalities and reduce disparities and barriers to entry into the dental profession.”

The ADA concluded the letter by noting that the Strengthening America’s Health Care Readiness Act would also create a new Emergency Service partnership between the National Health Service Corps and National Disaster Medical System to boost America’s healthcare surge capacity in response to public health emergencies.

“Dental professionals serving in the National Health Service Corps or alumni who continue to practice in a health professional shortage area could concurrently serve in the National Disaster Medical System and be available for rapid deployment for health emergencies, while receiving supplemental loan repayment awards to address their student debt,” Gehani and O’Loughlin said. “For years, the ADA has advocated for national emergency preparedness solutions through research, public policy and legislation, and Strengthening America’s Health Care Readiness Act would help with these efforts.”