Dental therapist Claire Roesler shows off the equipment she uses at the Penobscot Community Health Care’s Dental Center in Bangor on March 15, 2021 Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

The only greater Bangor dental clinic accepting MaineCare has laid off nearly half its employees as part of a restructuring effort in the middle of a national labor shortage.

Penobscot Community Dental Care laid off 31 employees two weeks ago while undergoing a reorganization in response to “changing demographics and other changes in Maine and in dental care,” spokesperson Kate Carlisle said Monday. Laid-off employees included dentists, dental assistants, hygienists and technicians.

The restructuring was done to “reimagine provider roles” and allow the clinic to “look ahead to staffing and work flows” allowing the clinic to continue providing basic services and meet demand for adult dental services after Maine passed a law this summer expanding MaineCare to cover dental care for low-income adults, Carlisle said.

It makes the clinic the only one of its kind in Maine to announce major layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The timing surprised some, with an industry group official saying she did not know why the clinic would be laying key employees off now.

Laid-off employees were being welcomed back to apply for newly defined roles. The dental clinic, which serves patients as part of Penobscot Community Health Care, listed 20 providers on its website on Monday. Sixty-five people worked at the clinic before the layoffs, Carlisle said.

In addition to the layoffs, the general dentistry service was paused for four weeks to complete the restructuring effort, but walk-in, hygiene and orthodontic appointments were still being honored, Carlisle said. The clinic will also end a longstanding dental residency program in June, she said.

Penobscot Community Dental Clinic is one of four low-cost dental care providers in Penobscot County. It is the only in Bangor that accepts MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, the federal health care program for low-income people, according to a Consumers for Affordable Health Care fact sheet.

Health care has been hit hard by the pandemic worker shortage, with 15 percent of Maine’s job losses between March 2020 and October 2021 attributed to the sector, according to Maine Department of Labor data.

Kathy Ridley, the interim executive director of the Maine Dental Association, said she did not understand why the clinic would lay off dentists, assistants and hygienists now, nor did she know what the restructuring entailed.

“I know that they’re restructuring and I just don’t know why,” Ridley said. “I don’t have the knowledge to report on that.”

Carlisle had no response to Ridley’s comment but said “recruiting for dentists and dental assistants remains difficult in rural states like Maine and is projected to get harder,” and that laying off the 31 employees would avoid having to ask them to retrain or adapt to new duties or a new work style and would avoid “negative results.”

PCHC also employs Maine’s first dental therapist, a new category of dental professional created by the Legislature seven years ago in part to ease recruiting challenges. The clinic hopes to hire more therapists and the recent changes will help the clinic “better embrace that model of care,” Carlisle said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect reference to the number of laid-off staff. It is 31.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.