Taxpayer funding for a four-year dental school at the University of New England moved forward on Wednesday as lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee voted unanimously in support of a $7 million bond issue to help get the program started.
The proposal, L.D. 1798, is not included in Gov. John Baldacci’s bonds package released earlier this month. The bill would have to win approval from the Legislature and then get the support of Maine voters in November.
The funds, which would be available through a bidding process, would provide $5 million to construct, equip and staff a teaching dental clinic affiliated with a Maine-based dental college. The only apparent qualifying bidder would be the University of New England, which has campuses in Biddeford and Portland and which has been planning and raising funds for a dental program for about four years. UNE offers a number of health care programs, including Maine’s only college of medicine.
The remaining $2 million would be available, also through a bidding process, to rural dental clinics that provide essential care to low-income residents and those without dental coverage. The clinics would use the money to increase the number of people they see and also would host fourth-year students in supervised clinical placements required of every student in the UNE dental school. The school would accept about 40 students each year, with the first class enrolling in 2012.
With many of Maine’s dentists approaching retirement age, the number available to meet the oral health needs of Maine residents is diminishing rapidly. Especially in rural and low-income areas, efforts to recruit new dentists to the state have been largely unsuccessful.
Speaking in support of the bond issue at Wednesday’s public hearing were several of the bill’s more than 60 sponsors, including primary sponsor Rep. Gary Connor, D-Kennebunk. Connor told the HHS Committee that bringing a dental school to Maine is key to recruiting and retaining young dentists to live and work here and also would provide an important boost to the state’s economy.
Other support came from UNE, Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor, the Maine Osteopathic Association, practicing and retired dentists, an aspiring dental student and others.
No one spoke in opposition to the bill. The Maine Dental Association took no position on the measure.
During a brief work session after the hearing, HHS Committee member Rep. Patricia Jones, D-Mount Vernon, said Maine faces “an unbelievable crisis in access to dental care.” While reimbursements must be increased for dental services provided through Maine’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, Jones said, the number of den-tists practicing here also must be increased. Jones said UNE must agree to place students in the poorest and farthest-flung areas of the state and also instill in them a sense of responsibility for caring for disadvantaged populations.