Billy Tarpley Says Little Rock's New Dental School Will Be a 'Welcome Change'

Billy Tarpley Says Little Rock's New Dental School Will Be a 'Welcome Change'
Tarpley says that only half of Arkansans with dental insurance will visit the dentist. (Jason Burt)

Billy Tarpley has been the executive director of the Arkansas State Dental Association for 25 years. He has 40 years of experience working in nonprofit association management, public relations, communications and governmental relations. He has been president of the American Society of Constituent Dental Executives and served on the American Dental Association’s Executive Director Advisory Council. In 2015, he became the first nondentist in Arkansas to be installed as a fellow in the American College of Dentists. He is a past president of the Arkansas Society of Professional Lobbyists and is a past president of the Arkansas Society of Association Executives. He is also a former chairman of the Henderson State University Foundation and is treasurer of the Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation.

Tarpley graduated from Henderson State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

What legislative policies would you like to see enacted?

Dentists are deeply concerned about the Medicaid dental program in Arkansas. Reimbursement rates for procedures have not been adjusted in 15 years, and the rising costs of supplies, insurance, staffing and other overhead concerns are forcing many dentists out of the Medicaid program. The high no-show rate among Medicaid patients is an added burden. In fact, a recent survey of Medicaid dental providers revealed that 84% indicated they will leave the program within three years if fees are not adjusted. On a separate note, the Arkansas State Dental Association will also seek relief from a variety of insurance-related issues.

What were the biggest effects of COVID on dentists in Arkansas? Do you see any lasting effects?

The dental industry took a substantial hit in the early days of COVID among state health personnel who lacked understanding about the transmission of the virus. Without the involvement of ASDA, the state likely would have delayed the reopening of dental practices until one or two weeks beyond other health care groups. Since then, dental offices have faced numerous challenges, not the least of which is staffing. Many dentists, particularly in central and northwest Arkansas, continue to have trouble hiring dental hygienists and dental assistants.

What’s the biggest issue facing Arkansas dentists now?

Empty chair time. Though several health care foundations and think-tank groups tout studies indicating that Arkansas needs more dentists, most dental offices are forced to deal with a lack of patients. Admittedly, the state would benefit from a more efficient distribution of dentists, particularly into rural areas, but the lack of demand for dental services, crippling student debt and quality-of-life issues force dentists to locate in more populated areas of the state.

What will it mean for Arkansas when Lyon College’s proposed dental school opens?

The new private dental school currently under development by Lyon College likely will be a welcome change for dental students who will be able to stay in Arkansas. This was one of the primary factors that prompted ASDA to support the concept of a public dental school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences several years ago. Though that proposal fell short of funding, the benefits of an in-state dental school remain viable. Whether or not the presence of an Arkansas dental school will result in a significant increase in patient care remains to be seen.