$7M bond aims to fund dental school

Posted March 15, 2010, at 10:57 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee this week will consider a proposed $7 million bond issue to establish a dental school in Maine. The measure has broad support, including from the Maine Primary Care Association, the University of New England and more than 60 backers in the Legislature.

The Maine Dental Association is neutral on the issue, however, and the measure is not contained in Gov. John Baldacci’s proposed $79 million bond package for the June ballot.

The majority of the money raised by the bond issue — $5 million of it — would be used to build and equip a teaching dental clinic where students would learn and practice the skills of dentistry. While the funds would be awarded through a bidding process, the private University of New England, with campuses in Biddeford and Portland, would be the most likely applicant.

UNE President Danielle Ripich said Monday that the school has been working since 2007 toward adding a dental program to its health care curriculum, which includes Maine’s only medical school. The total cost of getting a dental program running would be about $20 million, Ripich said, with about half that amount available through the use of existing clinical and academic resources. The school has raised about $5 million from a range of public and private sources, she said, and is looking to the bond issue for the remaining $5 million.

The UNE dental school would place fourth-year students in clinical practices for at least six months, Ripich said. Although Maine dental clinics would be the primary placement sites, Ripich said, UNE may also partner with clinics in New Hampshire, Vermont and western Massachusetts. The program would enroll about 40 stu-dents each year with a target start date of fall 2012.

The remaining $2 million would be used to expand dental services and support clinical rotations for students at Maine nonprofit clinics such as Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor. The Rev. Bob Carlson, PCHC’s president, said PCHC would bid for a share of the $2 million to add more dental chairs and make full use of the services of dental students placed at the Bangor clinic. PCHC served about 14,000 dental patients and provided about 32,000 visits in 2009, Carlson said, adding that more dentists are needed to meet the need in the Bangor area.

Kevin Lewis, CEO of the Maine Primary Care Association, said a dental school at UNE would help recruit more general-practice dentists to Maine, especially in underserved rural areas. Students placed in rural clinics are likely to establish professional and social relationships that encourage them to return after graduation, he said.

The HHS Committee’s House chairman, Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, said Monday that the bond issue would expand access to dental care as well as provide a much-needed boost to Maine’s failing economy. Perry cited a recent study showing that dental pain is the top reason Mainers who are uninsured or enrolled in MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, seek treatment at hospital emergency rooms.

Although the Maine Dental Association is taking no position on the bond issue, its president, Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, said he supports the concept of a dental school in Maine. But he said he has some reservations about providing taxpayer funds for the private-sector school.

A spokesman for Baldacci said Monday that the governor’s bonds package, released March 10, has a strong focus on transportation and the immediate creation of jobs. If the dental school bond issue clears the HHS Committee, it must garner the support of the Legislature before being submitted to voters for their approval.

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