Maine Senate to take up ‘dental therapist’ bill to expand oral health care services

Posted Jan. 29, 2014, at 5:55 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate is scheduled to consider a bill Thursday that proponents say would increase the availability of oral health care to rural parts of the state in desperate need of additional dental services.

The bill, LD 1230, would establish a new state license for “dental hygiene therapists,” who could perform routine dental procedures such as cleanings, tooth extractions and fillings. The therapists would have more training than dental hygienists but less than dentists. Advocates say the position is to dentists what nurse practitioners are to medical doctors.

The bill — sponsored by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and co-sponsored by dozens of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — won initial approval in the House with a 102-39 vote on Tuesday.

Under the law, the dental therapists could operate their own clinics, but they must hold a supervisory agreement with a licensed dentist. They would be allowed to operate in schools, nursing homes and assisted living centers. They would also be required to undertake additional education of at least 1.5 years, 1,000 supervised clinical hours and pass an examination by the state Board of Dental Examiners.

The idea is that services provided by dental therapists would cost less than those offered by dentists.

“My oral health bill is an all-hands-on-deck approach to the dental care shortage in our state, especially in rural areas,” Eves said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “We can have dental therapists treating kids in schools or seniors in assisted living facilities for routine, preventative procedures safely and at a lower cost.”

Dental therapists are relatively rare in the United States. Only Alaska and Minnesota currently provide such licenses, though they are more common internationally. Roughly 50 countries employ similar types of dental professionals, including Canada and Great Britain.

Advocates say the new licensure is needed because dentists are hard to come by in rural parts of the state, and many of the state’s dentists are nearing retirement. More than 20 percent of the state’s dentists plan to retire in the next five years, and an additional 16 percent plan to reduce their hours, according to research cited by a coalition of the bill’s proponents.

The law has faced firm opposition from Maine’s dentists, who have lobbied hard against its passage. They say the problem of access to dental health care in rural Maine has been exaggerated, and efforts to attract more dentists to the state — including the opening of a new dental school at the University of New England — are addressing whatever shortage does exist.

An earlier version of the bill met its death in the Senate last year, when the upper chamber of the Legislature voted 14-21 to oppose the proposal.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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