The state’s largest dental benefits provider is launching an effort designed to put more dentists in areas of Iowa where there’s a critical need. Suzanne Heckenlaible, director of government and community relations at Delta Dental of Iowa, says the program offers $100,000 grants to help new dentists overcome their financial challenges while committing to communities with dentist shortages.

Heckenlaible says: "That includes $50,000 from Delta Dental of Iowa but it also includes a percentage of those funds to be from the community. Those community dollars will then be matched by congressional funds. What’s important is that the community starts to take ownership of understanding the real importance of having a dentist in their community."

The project is called Fulfilling Iowa’s Need for Dentists, or FIND. An earlier version of the program offered $50,000 grants to dentists while the new incarnation doubles that. Heckenlaible says the money comes with a string attached.

"They have to commit to seeing underserved patients. Thirty-five percent of their patient base must be underserved," Heckenlaible says. "That’s the very young, the very old, Medicaid patients, underinsured patients, patients that cannot pay, so it’s a wide variety of individuals and their dental needs are not being met."

As part of FIND, a study by Delta Dental shows 55 of of Iowa’s 99 counties are designated as dentist shortage areas. Heckenlaible says dentists just getting out of college often face a mountain of debt. Heckenlaible says: "The average dentist today graduates with more than $120,000 in student loan debt, plus, they’re looking at, if they have to set up a new dental practice or else upgrade an existing practice, it can top up to $200,000."

She says the program should be able to provide awards of $100,000 to three Iowa dentists over the coming year, and the first grant has already been awarded to a Storm Lake dentist. Two more grants are available. For more information, see the Delta Dental website