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Coverage of legislative fight over hygienists spotlights work of regional health news service Date: 04/18/16

By Mary Otto

Through public fights, complicated amendments and rumors of passage, Andy Miller of Georgia Health News followed the drama of House Bill 684.

And when the bill recently died a sudden death in the Georgia statehouse, Miller was there to let readers know.

“A bill to allow Georgia dental hygienists to work in safety-net settings without a dentist present appeared to get a strong push forward when it was approved by a House health committee,” he wrote. “But the chamber’s rules committee then blocked House Bill 684 from a vote on the floor, effectively killing it for the year.”

Oral health advocates had been hopeful for passage of the legislation, which would have enabled Georgia dental hygienists to work in so-called safety-net settings – including long-term care facilities, schools and nonprofit clinics – without a dentist present.

But the Georgia Dental Association was able to get the bill killed, arguing that the legislation would allow the delivery of second-class care.

In Georgia, a state with roughly 150 federally-designated dental provider shortage areas, the lack of oral health services is an important topic.

Miller’s coverage helped highlight the deep and ongoing debate in his state over how best to meet the care needs of many vulnerable residents.

In this Q&A, Miller offers insights into how his coverage of the dental hygiene bill unfolded, and where oral health care coverage fits into the larger mission at Georgia Health News. He also shares some wisdom on how he balances his time and responsibilities at the independent nonprofit news organization.

The debate over Georgia House Bill 684 was important but, if I am not mistaken, you were the only local reporter covering it. How did you manage to pick up on this when no one else had?

I have written about problems in access to health care for many years, and this bill interested me because it would have a definite effect on those people who struggle to get dental care. It’s a complicated issue, like a lot of health care, and I think other Capitol reporters were focused on other, non-health care issues. It took a while to explore and understand all the elements surrounding HB 684.

There was a lot of controversy over this bill that came out in your stories. Have you covered similar debates between, say, physicians and nurses, or is there something unique going on with dentistry in this regard?

There have been a lot of “turf battles’’ between health professional groups over “scope of practice” conflicts, so this wasn’t unusual. From what I understand, the dental hygienists have sought this ability to serve safety-net settings for some time. This year was the farthest that their proposal has gone.

I noticed at least one of your stories about the dental hygiene bill was picked up by the Florida Times-Union. Can you tell us a little bit more about how Georgia Health News works, and the role it plays in keeping people in the region informed about health issues?

We circulate our stories to 17 different media organizations around the state, sort of acting like an AP for health care in Georgia. Those organizations are free to use or to discard our stories. Many of our articles appear in print or on websites all over the state. Georgia Health News is pretty much acknowledged as the definitive source of health care news in the state.

You and your colleagues have made oral health care – and the lack of it – a regular part of the coverage at Georgia Health News. Your site has featured pieces about aunique dental clinic that serves people with developmental disabilities, and theMercy Care program that gets dental services to seniors. You cover debates oversmoking in restaurants and smokeless tobacco in baseball parks. Where do you find your oral health stories and how do you decide what to cover?

Oral health is obviously a very important thing for people, from kids to seniors. We try to do stories that show how important caring for our teeth is. For instance, problems with teeth are the No. 1 reason for student absenteeism, I’m told. And from a health and taxpayer standpoint, people are very interested in smoking and tobacco use.

The big free clinics can be challenging to write about, but you found a unique angle for a Mission of Mercy event you reported on – a patient who had received extensive care at a previous free clinic who returned to help as a volunteer. You also used the event to write about the deeper unmet needs for care in Georgia and their costs, such as the 60,000 dental-related emergency room visits that came with a $23 million price tag one recent year. As you have continued writing about oral health care, what has surprised you most?

When I go to free health care events that offer both medical and oral health services, I’m shocked at how many people come there just for dental care. We have a high uninsured rate in Georgia, and that’s reflected in the need for dental services. I recently visited a rural county where there are no dentists – and people have to drive long distances to get care. I guess I’m surprised that many people in our state don’t have the access or the financial resources to take care of their oral health needs.

You seem to juggle a lot of roles, working as chief executive and editor of Georgia Health News, writing stories, editing and curating the work of other people. You also serve as the president of AHCJ’s Atlanta chapter. Do you have any wisdom to share about how you manage your time?

Good question. Sometimes there are too many balls to juggle. But I have great people I work with, including Gerdeen Dyer, an editor and friend; Pat Thomas, a University of Georgia, Athens professor of journalism; a great board of directors; and freelancers that do interesting work. I also have a great family. And from a de-stressing point of view, I can’t forget to mention my great escapes on the golf course, though I’m a long way from being skilled in that area.


 

Andy Miller has been a health care journalist for the past 20 years. From 1992 to mid-2009, he covered health care for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He won numerous awards for his newspaper reporting on hospitals and health insurers, state government and Georgia’s mental hospitals. He is a former AHCJ board member and serves as the president of the organization’s Atlanta chapter. He was a Kaiser Family Foundation health journalism fellow in 2001-02.