Chances are you know someone who has struggled to access dental care. It is a nationwide crisis that, according to the American Dental Association, is only projected to worsen. The need for accessible dental care is most urgent in rural areas and for vulnerable populations. This problem was recently covered in a National Public Radio story that cited “a quarter of Americans went without dental care they needed in 2014 because they couldn’t afford it.” Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a solution that would increase access to care that a wide range of stakeholders could agree upon? Well there is – expanding the number of dental therapists providing care.
Dental therapists are early intervention and prevention dental professionals who are specially trained to provide a limited scope of services under the supervision of a dentist. In leading edge states, it has been demonstrated that licensure of dental therapists can garner bipartisan support from both lawmakers and the public.
Just this past June, legislation was passed in Vermont that authorized dental therapists to be trained and practice in the state. On a recent Community Catalyst webinar, “Dental Therapy: A Bipartisan Solution to Expanding Dental Access,” Vermont State Senator Jeanette K. White (D) and State Representative Paul Dame (R) spoke about how they saw the bill as a unique opportunity for advocates and legislators across the political spectrum to come together to address an issue that will really make a difference in the health of Vermonters. Sen. White approached it from the perspective of universal health care and the concern that medical care is often “cut off at the neck,” excluding mental health, dental and eye care. She praised the licensure of dental therapist as an opportunity to begin to reintegrate dental care for all the state’s citizens. Rep. Dame saw it more as a cost-effective and free-market-oriented solution that can address the problem of inadequate access by creating decent-paying jobs in the new profession, while still allowing dentists to have full control over their practice. “If someone had been practicing in Minnesota as a dental therapist for five years and they decided to move to Vermont, why should we make it illegal for them to practice?”
But bipartisan support for dental therapists isn’t limited to Vermont: it exists nationally, as well. Results from a recent poll conducted for Americans for Tax Reform found “79 percent of likely voters support the creation of mid-level providers that could perform dental care services such as basic extractions and hygiene plans,” and that the support “extends across all key demographic groups including men and women of all ages, Republicans, Independents, Democrats, white, and Hispanic voters. The support for such a process extends across a wide swath of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, ethnicity or gender.” Furthermore, it was the number one health issue on the Progressive Agenda in 2014 and is even supported by the Koch brothers – two influential conservative activists who support a free-market agenda.
Dental therapy isn’t a new solution to accessing dental care – it is only fairly new to the United States, and it is clear that Americans believe this is a solution that works for everyone. In a time of such contentious political gridlock, it is refreshing to have advocates and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle coming together to address the needs of the communities they serve and improve access to oral health care for those that need it most.