CONTRIBUTORS

Dental therapists would give Maine kids the access they need to dental care

Posted Dec. 11, 2013, at 12:17 p.m.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick Buy Photo
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting

Brenda Ackers does not have a dentist. Every day, she has trouble eating, sleeping and engaging in daily activities because of the debilitating pain in her mouth. Yet, because of the high cost of dental care and limited access, she cannot afford regular visits to a dentist while she continues to struggle to pay back old dental bills.

Unfortunately, Brenda’s experience is not unique. Thousands of Mainers on limited income like Brenda suffer through daily mouth pain because they lack access to affordable dental care. Even more troubling, half of Maine kids do not have regular access to a dentist.

The extraordinary need for dental care spurred us to sponsor, LD 1230, An Act to Increase Access to Dental Care. This common-sense legislation would help fix the broken dental marketplace by allowing dental hygienists to become dental hygiene therapists after:

— An additional two years of education;

— One thousand hours of clinical training under the direct supervision of a dentist;

— Passage of a board-certified exam.

In Maine, dental hygiene therapists would:

— Fit in between hygienists and dentists, similar to how physician assistants fit into the medical team;

— Provide routine preventive and restorative care;

— Practice in rural and underserved areas of our state.

The facts are clear, whether some dentists want to agree with them or not. An astonishing 62 percent of MaineCare children did not receive a dental visit in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center; half of Maine dentists are older than 55 and 40 percent say they will reduce their hours or retire in the next four years; and, 74 communities have been designated as shortage areas impacting all but one of the Maine counties. While dentists in Maine are providing charitable care, we cannot base a system of care on these efforts. We cannot stand for the status quo; we need a multifaceted approach that includes dental therapists.

Many of us love our dentist, and this bill is not meant to take business away from them. In fact, peer-reviewed economic models show that for every $30 a dentist invests in hiring a dental hygiene therapist, the return is $100 dollars. In other words, dental hygiene therapy is a 233 percent return on investment.

While dentists in Maine are competing for cash paying customers in urban settings, nearly 50 percent of Maine children remain unserved. Dental hygiene therapy will help them extend care to new people and expand their marketplace. It just makes sense.

The dental lobby camped out in Augusta continue to cloud the waters and tell you that dental therapists are unsafe, uneducated and will take money out of dentists’ pockets. More than 1,100 studies and reports conducted over the last 90 years prove that none of these claims are true. The truth is that dental therapy works in more than 50 countries throughout the industrialized world and helps increase access to quality, affordable care.

In urging Maine to join Minnesota in allowing dental hygiene therapists, the Dean of the University of Minnesota Dental School, Leon Assael, said: “Critics question the experimental concept of this program or that the quality services might be inferior. I am writing to assure you that these arguments are not supported by facts, research or our experiences of Minnesota, Alaska and over 50 countries where mid-level oral health practitioners are practicing today.”

We met a woman practicing dental hygiene therapy in Minnesota, who saw more than 1,200 Medicaid children in 2012 and is on pace to far exceed that number in 2013. We also talked to a private practice dentist in Minnesota whose number of Medicaid patients nearly doubled after he hired a dental hygiene therapist.

We come from very different parts of Maine, represent very different districts and often find more to disagree about than to agree on. Yet lack of access to dental care is something we both see firsthand everyday. Rural Washington County is blessed to have Tooth Fairies Inc. providing dental hygiene to kids, but for kids with a cavity, facing dental pain, access is a huge issue. Unfortunately, the challenges facing Washington County are repeated throughout Maine, from the Berwicks to Allagash. In fact, dental disease is five times more common than childhood asthma and is the greatest unmet health need for kids in Maine.

The bipartisan group of legislators that serve as cosponsors for LD 1230 are from different backgrounds and ideologies but have come together to support the common goal of expanding access to care. We welcome dental therapists to Maine because no one should have to get their dental care in an emergency room.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, represents House District 146. Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, represents Senate District 29.

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