Arizona Considers Dental Therapy Bill

Published February 6, 2018

A bill that would authorize dental therapists in Arizona is under consideration in the state’s Senate Committee on Health and Human Services.

The committee, chaired by state Sen. Nancy Barto (R-Phoenix), heard testimony on Senate Bill 1377 (S.B. 1377) on February 7.

Dental therapists are similar to primary-care nurse practitioners, providing a limited set of services. A dental therapist operates under the supervision of a licensed dentist to perform basic dental treatment and preventive services.

Currently, Arizona law prohibits anyone except licensed dentists from performing dentistry, restricting the supply of oral health care in the state.

Concerned About Dental Shortages

Barto, S.B. 1377’s sponsor, says Arizona is experiencing a health care crisis.

“The value of having a dental therapist in a dentist’s practice is to extend the ability for care to people in need of it,” Barto said. “Arizona is one of those states, like many, that has areas with dental shortages. For example, in Scottsdale, which everybody knows is not exactly a poor area of the state, there are 481 dentists serving a population of about 242,700 people, in a geographic area of 184 square miles.

“In Coconino, Yavapai, Gila, and Navajo Counties, there are 280 dentists serving a population of about 530,000 people in a geographic area of 41,451 square miles,” Barto said. “What you’re having is an issue of dentists in rural areas and poorer areas that are not available to serve that many people.”

Naomi Lopez Bauman, director of health care policy for The Goldwater Institute, says Barto’s bill would help alleviate the state’s dental crisis.

“According to federal data, almost 70 percent of Arizona is facing a shortage of dental care professionals,” Bauman said. “This bill aims to legalize midlevel dental providers in much the same way that nurse practitioners now provide routine nonsurgical care for patients.”

‘Very High-Quality Dental Care’

Barto says dental therapists provide basic care, performing many routine procedures.

“Dental therapists offer very high-quality dental care to people in need at an affordable price, sort of like a nurse practitioner,” Barto said. “They are sort of a midlevel health care provider in the dental space. They work under supervision similarly as a physician’s assistant does under a medical doctor and under their license. In the dental area, a dental therapist would be trained similarly to a dentist, but would not do as many procedures as a dentist.”

Bauman says dental therapists are a proven way to promote dental access.

“While there are no silver bullets to the many challenges facing the health care system, this bill would promote dental access, choice, and affordability,” Bauman said. “More than 1,000 studies and evaluations confirm that dental therapists provide safe and high-quality care for dental patients.”

Removing Government Obstacles

Barto says regulators should get out of the way of people’s access to necessary treatments.

“The government should not stand in the way of providing needed oral health care to people in need,” Barto said. “We shouldn’t be standing in the way of a proven model.”

The bill would benefit low-income and rural Arizonians and residents, Bauman says.

“Those individuals and families that currently lack access to dental care because of their rural location or lack of resources are the ones that stand to benefit the most,” Bauman said. “They are more likely to be rural, minority, or low-income [households]. For many people, not having accessible and affordable dental treatment options means enduring acute pain and eventually seeking relief in hospital emergency rooms, or worse, facing additional ailments and medical complications that result from a lack of basic care.”

Bauman says S.B. 1377 would alleviate a critical problem in Arizona.

“Given the severe shortage of dental providers across the state, it has become increasingly important for Arizona lawmakers to focus their attention on providing true access to and affordability to dental care,” Bauman said. “This legislation takes an important step in that direction.”