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Maine Senate advances bill to create ‘dental therapists’

The proposal would allow dental hygienists to perform some procedures currently performed by dentists.

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer - Press Herald

AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate on Wednesday continued to a push a bill that would allow some dental hygienists to perform some duties currently performed by licensed dentists.

The proposal, L.D. 1230, sponsored by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, would create a new dental health position in the state, a “mid-level dental therapist.” Proponents say the bill is an attempt to increase access to dental care, especially in rural areas. However, groups representing dentists have fiercely opposed the measure, saying the state’s current shortage of dentists will be filled.

The Senate voted 19-16 to approve the measure. Additional votes are required before the bill goes to Gov. Paul LePage.

The dental therapist would be licensed to perform more dental work than a hygienist is permitted to do, but would not be as highly trained as a dentist. For instance, a dental therapist would be able to fill cavities, but not perform root canals. The new position would be similar to a nurse-practitioner and a doctor.

Supporters said the bill would allow hygienists to receive additional training to perform up to 53 procedures. Currently a licensed dentists receiving eight years of training can perform over 500 procedures.

Dental therapists would receive a minimum of four years of training and as many as six years. In addition, therapists would need 1,000 hours of clinical training with a licensed dentists before becoming certified. Supporters said dental therapists would not be allowed to run private practices.

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, said the bill would increase dental care for poor and rural Mainers. He noted that only 12 percent of the state’s dentists currently accept MaineCare patients. MaineCare is the state’s version of Medicaid, the publicly funded health insurance program for the poor, elderly and disabled.

The Maine Dental Association is lobbying against the law, arguing that there is no shortage of dentists, and that a new dental school at the University of New England will help offset any future shortfalls.

“There are efforts under way to increase the number of dentists in Maine,” said Dan Cashman, a spokesman for the MDA.

Cashman said most Maine residents live within 15 miles of a dentist, and the state has lower rates of untreated tooth decay than the national average.

With about 600 practicing dentists, Maine has the lowest number of dentists per capita in New England, and 40 percent of Maine’s dentists are approaching retirement, according to a coalition of the bill’s supporters, which include the Pew Research Center and the American Dental Hygienists Association.

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, represents one of the more rural districts in the state. On Thursday he said the bill would greatly benefit his constituents.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said he was originally ambivalent about the proposal, but not any longer. Katz said the proposal doesn’t force dentists to hire dental therapists, but it could increase profits while expanding coverage if they do.

He said that if two-thirds of the children in the state don’t have a dentist, then the current marketplace is broken. “The status quo isn’t working,” he said. “This is the right thing for our state.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:


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Categories: Dental News