BOSTON – This week, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin is expected to sign into law legislation that will greatly expand access to dental care by allowing dental therapists to practice in Vermont.
Like nurse practitioners and physician assistants in medicine, dental therapists work with dentists and dental hygienists as part of a dental team. They provide routine and preventive care under the general supervision of a dentist, either on or off site. This innovative, team-based approach enables dental practices to increase the number of people they can serve, is cost-efficient, and patient-focused.
Vermont’s law is the latest huge victory for state and tribal advocates across the country seeking to expand dental care to people who can’t get it when and where they need it – in their own communities.
In the past year alone, close to a dozen states and tribes have pursued adding dental therapists to dental teams to help solve deep oral health disparities and severe unmet dental needs. Dental therapists currently practice in Minnesota and on tribal land in Alaska and Washington. They are authorized to practice in Maine and will soon be practicing in Oregon under a statewide demonstration program.
“We applaud Vermont’s state legislators for taking action and challenging the status quo in an effort to increase access to dental care for the people they represent,” said Tera Bianchi, Project Director for the Dental Access Project at Community Catalyst. “Community mobilization led by Voices for Vermont’s Children and their broad-based coalition of more than 40 organizations was critical to this victory. We encourage other communities to follow Vermont’s lead and add dental therapists to the team.”
Across the country, four out of ten children go without regular dental care every year. In Vermont, tens of thousands of residents go without needed dental care every year, including almost 40 percent of children with Medicaid coverage, because they can’t afford dental care or find a dentist that accepts their insurance.
“It is appalling that 181 million people in the U.S. go without a dental visit each year, either because they can’t afford the care, can’t find a dentist willing to take Medicaid coverage or they live in an area where dentists don’t practice,” said Bianchi. “This law will allow Vermonters greater access to critically-needed routine and preventive dental care that will improve health in the state.”
According to a recent Community Catalyst report, dental therapists practicing in Alaska and Minnesota are providing cost-effective, routine and preventive dental care to traditionally underserved Medicaid, rural, and tribal populations.
In Alaska, dental therapists are practicing in 81 communities, most of them remote, and have increased access to culturally competent dental care for more than 45,000 previously underserved patients. In Minnesota, dental therapists have expanded access to care and reduced wait times for rural patients.
About The Dental Access Project
The Dental Access Project, a joint initiative between Community Catalyst and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, focuses on empowering community groups and consumer health advocates to improve access to dental care by expanding the dental team to include a mid-level dental provider called a dental therapist. Community Catalyst has partnered with consumer and child health advocates and state and tribal leaders in Kansas, Ohio, New Mexico, Washington and Vermont to explore the feasibility of establishing dental therapist programs to expand access to oral health care. For more information, please visit Dental Access Project.
About Community Catalyst
Community Catalyst is a national, non-profit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1998 with the belief that affordable quality health care should be accessible to everyone. We work in partnership with national, state and local organizations, policymakers and philanthropic foundations to ensure consumer interests are represented wherever important decisions about health and the health system are made: in communities, courtrooms, statehouses and on Capitol Hill. For more information, visit www.communitycatalyst.org. Follow us on Twitter @HealthPolicyHub.