Dental school eyed to fill gap in Maine care

Posted June 01, 2009, at 10:04 p.m.

The University of New England is developing a new plan to open a dental school on its Portland campus, potentially improving access to affordable dental care throughout the state. It will cost an estimated $20 million to get the program up and running, and planners hope a portion of the cost will be added to Gov. John Baldacci’s bond package, which is undergoing legislative scrutiny this week.

UNE President Danielle Ripich said Monday that the plan, based on an innovative dental school in Arizona, promises to increase access to care in the short term and to recruit more dentists to Maine’s underserved rural areas. The school likely would offer a tuition discount to students who hail from Maine, she said. The first class would be offered in 2011.

While most dental schools provide public clinics on their campuses where students may practice, Ripich said the model being proposed at UNE would place third- and fourth-year students for up to six months at a time in publicly funded community health clinics scattered throughout the state. Under the supervision of fully li-censed dentists, the students would provide basic dental and oral health care in the local clinics, expanding the number of patients who can be seen.

Maine’s 19 community health centers accept patients covered by Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance and bill those with no coverage on a sliding scale. Thirteen of those clinics offer dental services as well as medical and mental health care.

For Penobscot Community Health Center, the state’s largest publicly funded clinic, the UNE dental school promises to help stem a chronic shortage of dental practitioners. With 20 dental chairs at its clinic in Bangor and another six chairs already planned at its Old Town location, PCHC serves about 10,000 dental patients, ac-cording to its board president, the Rev. Robert Carlson. Yet the need for more practitioners to serve more patients remains unmet, he said.

“Most of Maine north of Portland is tremendously underserved,” Carlson said.

In addition to providing more care through the student placements, Ripich said the longer-term goal is to attract and retain more dentists who want to practice in Maine’s rural areas.

“Clearly the need is there,” Ripich said. “Forty percent of Maine dentists are over the age of 55 and, compared to the national average, Maine falls far short in the number of practicing dentists to serve the population.”

The plan has the support of the Maine Dental Association, the Maine Primary Care Association and the not-for-profit Northeast Delta Dental, the largest provider of dental insurance in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Tom Raffio, president and chief executive officer of Northeast Delta Dental, said the Delta Dental Plan of Maine has pledged $2 million to support the new dental program at UNE.

Maine, he said, has the dubious distinction of being the fifth most toothless state in the nation, with 30 percent of adults age 65 and older having lost all of their natural teeth. In addition, he said, Maine has only 47 practicing dentists per 100,000 residents, compared with the national average of 60 dentists per 100,000 people.

Delta Dental plans in Vermont and New Hampshire have each donated $100,000, Raffio said, because UNE also will provide student clinical opportunities in those states. The parent company also will contribute $100,000, he said, to help get the new school running.

“By 2013, there will be more dentists retiring than graduating from school,” Raffio said, citing national statistics.

Ripich said UNE, which is based in Biddeford, is well situated to add a dental school to its other health care programs, which include an osteopathic medical school and programs in dental hygiene and pharmacy. Science faculty and some clinical areas are already in place, she said, although the new dental program would re-quire the refurbishing of two buildings on the school’s Portland campus.

While private donations and capital investments will help get the program off the ground, she said, she hopes Maine lawmakers will add $5 million to Gov. John Baldacci’s $306 million bond package to meet the estimated $20 million startup cost.

“We hope we’ve been persuasive and compelling enough about the need for this program,” Ripich said.

Baldacci submitted his bond proposal three months ago. Members of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will begin discussing the proposal today.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said Monday that the Legislature could add the UNE funding to the bond proposal, but that there are many competing proposals — and significant political pressure to reduce, not increase, the size of the borrowing package.

mhaskell@bangordailynews.net

990-8291

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