AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate on Wednesday night killed a bill that would allow a new type of dental provider, a dental hygiene therapist, to open up shop in the state and address a shortage of access to dental care in Maine.
The Senate first opposed the bill in a 14-21 vote before killing it. The Maine House had given initial approval to the measure just a day earlier in a 95-45 vote.
The bill’s defeat marks a major victory for Maine dentists, who heavily lobbied against it. The bill, LD 1230, was sponsored by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and was co-sponsored by more than 40 lawmakers from both parties.
The bill would have established a license for a dental hygiene therapist that would require a therapist to graduate from a dental hygiene therapy program and complete 1,000 hours of clinical training supervised by a dentist. A hygiene therapist would be able to perform some procedures normally performed by dentists, like fillings and tooth extractions, and be allowed to operate a practice in Maine as long as he or she has a supervisory agreement with a licensed dentist.
The bill passed by the House would require that 50 percent of patients served by dental hygiene therapists be recipients of MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, the government health insurance program that serves low-income and disabled residents.
Dental hygiene therapists are a relatively new profession in the United States. So far, they’re only recognized in Alaska, where they practice in federally designated tribal areas, and Minnesota.
Bill supporters cited a range of statistics in the months leading up to debate on the bill to show Maine has a shortage of access to dental care. They noted that 15 of Maine’s 16 counties have federally designated Health Professional Shortage Areas for dentists, nearly a quarter of Maine dentists plan to retire in the next five years and 16 percent expect to reduce their hours.
Dentists, however, have said the statistics showing limited access to dental care have been exaggerated. A report on oral health care in Maine commissioned by the Legislature in 2011 and released in February originally stated that only 13.5 percent of dentists practice in rural areas, while two-thirds of the state’s residents live in those areas. That statistic, however, has since been removed from the report because it confused different federal definitions of “rural.”
According to the Maine Dental Association, the correct statistic would show 25 percent of Maine residents — not two-thirds — live in the rural areas where 13.5 percent of dentists practice.
The Maine Dental Association has also argued that a new dental school at the University of New England in Biddeford, which will enroll its first class of prospective dentists in the fall, will help to address some of Maine’s dental access problems.
Eves described the Senate action to kill the bill as “a considerable blow to children who desperately need oral health care in our state. It’s terribly disappointing to see the interests of one special group win out over the best interest of the people of our state.”