Dentists petition Texas to allow insurance to pay for teledentistry during coronavirus pandemic

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dr. Robin Bethell is getting ready to open Forest Family Dentistry for other procedures besides emergency dental care. 

He closed its five offices in Austin and Round Rock in March, but will slowly start bringing in patients for other treatments. 

“We’re going to be able to do restorative treatment, meaning if someone has a broken tooth, if someone has a big cavity, we’ll be able to fill and treat that now,” Dr. Bethell explained. “We are not comfortable yet doing normal hygiene and cleanings, and we will be hopefully in the near future but not quite yet.”

Dr. Bethell said during this pandemic they’ve been doing a lot of teledentistry, but they aren’t able to bill insurance for it. 

A San Antonio dentist is hoping to change that and started a petition to allow Texas dentists to use teledentistry to screen and triage patients during COVID-19. 

The Change.org petition has more than 3,000 signatures and urges Gov. Greg Abbott to allow dentists to expand teledentistry options and allow insurance reimbursements.

“The use of telehealth technology has not only been shown to increase access to care, but currently as social distancing continues, telehealth is a tool that can be used to eliminate possible exposure to Covid 19 by live video consults, triaging, and advanced communications with patients,” Leanne Tessandori said in the petition.

“We have never prevented dentist triaging on the phone,” explained Dr. Boyd Bush, Executive Director of the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners. “It’s up to dentists if they want to charge for it. We don’t set perimeters of what they can and can’t charge.”

Dr. Bush says the problem is there needs to be legislation that can define teledentistry. Last session, Senate Bill 792 could have helped with that, but it didn’t pass. The bill would have allowed dentists to communicate, collaborate, and share patient information through telehealth especially for those who are underserved. 

Dr. Bush says only Governor Greg Abbott has the authority to make that happen during this pandemic. ​KXAN investigator Arezow Doost has asked Gov. Abbott’s office about expanding teledentistry and is waiting on a response. 

Dr. Bethell tells Doost that if he could have gotten insurance reimbursements he could have kept a number of his employees during COVID-19. 

“It definitely led to us furloughing more people because you couldn’t foresee… economically how long we would last without being able to bill,” Dr. Bethell explained. “I think that having a memorandum to open up teledentistry for billing in Texas would help dental offices bring back more employees.”

Dr. Bethell says even now as they bring in more patients they will be wearing N95 masks and full gowns, but those supplies are limited. They will also only have one patient and provider at a time in the office. 

“I am looking forward to dentist being able to make decisions that are best for their practices. I think it is time for the government to lean on individual industries to make their own decisions ” Dr. Bethell said.

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