On Monday, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a new law that will allow dental therapists to work in Vermont. It’s an exciting victory on a number of levels.
To start, this makes Vermont the fourth state to add dental therapists to the dental team and the most recent victory in the movement to transform our dental delivery system so that people who need care the most can get it.
Currently, tens of thousands of Vermont residents go without needed dental care each year, including almost 40 percent of children on Medicaid coverage, because they can’t afford dental care or find a dentist that accepts their insurance. This action will allow Vermonters to have greater access to critically-needed routine and preventive care and will improve health in the state.
Our congratulations go out to the Oral Health Care for All coalition, led by Voices for Vermont’s Children, for their hard work to garner community support for this bill. More than forty organizations including consumer groups, dental hygienists, individual dentists and thousands of community members worked for five years, generating over 200 personal stories, 1,500 petition signatures and countless phone calls, letters and meetings in support of this proven provider.
But the coalition and their supporters didn’t do it alone. Policymakers and government officials looked at the facts and took action to reduce costs in the health system and increase access to dental care for the people who they represent instead of responding to the special interests of the dental lobby. We applaud Vermont’s state legislators for standing up for affordable, high-quality dental care for the people in their state.
Over the past year, close to a dozen state and tribal governments have pursued establishing these health care professionals as a way to solve deep oral health disparities and severe unmet dental needs. Dental therapists have been working as part of the dental team in Minnesota for five years and in Alaska for more than a decade. The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington State is employing their first dental therapist and soon the providers will be working in Oregon under a statewide pilot program.
The victory in Vermont is another clear sign that momentum is on our side. In the last few weeks alone health care leader Dr. Don Berwick stated oral health is a human right in his endorsement of dental therapists; the Boston Globe identified dental therapy as must pass legislation; the New York Times featured the benefits the Swinomish Tribe is seeing from employing their first dental therapist; and the Federal Trade Commission released a statement that all communities should benefit from this proven and effective provider.
Dental therapists are coming. They will be working on dental teams in every state and in tribal communities across the country. The results will be greater access to care and a more cost-effective health care system. Similar to how physician’s assistants were opposed by doctors in the beginning, dental therapists have been opposed by the dental lobby. However, dentists working with the provider see the quality of their work and how the dental therapists can grow their practice by increasing access to care. Week by week, dentists are changing their minds.
As more communities nationwide move to include dental therapists as part of their dental team, the evidence surrounding dental therapists’ efficacy is beginning to outweigh the misinformation spread by the special interest lobby. Kansas and Michigan recently introduced strong, evidence-based legislation that keeps dental therapy education in the hands of dental educators and the same dental accrediting body that oversees dentists. In addition, the Indian Health Service recently announced its plan to expand Alaska’s successful Community Health Aide Program (CHAP), which includes dental therapists, to tribal communities across United States.
Momentum is on or side but is it is still up to us—consumers, health advocacy groups, public health dentists, primary care doctors, educators, hygienists and you—to help take this message to lawmakers and government officials. Authorizing dental therapists is not a panacea. But it is a smart, evidence-based part of the solution to updating our dental delivery system and getting critically needed oral health care to those who need it most.
To stay current on the Dental Access Project, sign up for our newsletter and project updates by clicking Oral Health on our E-updates page.