Massachusetts Considers Licensing Dental Therapists

Published June 13, 2018

The Massachusetts Legislature is considering expanding dental care access in the state, particularly for low-income patients, by licensing midlevel dental care providers known as dental therapists.

The proposed law would allow a person who completed a dental therapist education program meeting the standards of the Commission on Dental Accreditation to provide oral health care services such as cleanings and some nonsurgical care under the supervision of a licensed dentist.

Groups representing dentists and dental hygienists in the state, historically at odds over licensing dental therapy, have expressed support for Senate Bill 1169, after more than a year of negotiations.

Filling a Need

State Rep. Kate Hogan (D–Maynard), chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, says the interested parties have all begun to recognize the need for a midlevel dental care option.

“The Joint Committee on Public Health was referred multiple bills in the 190th legislative session that sought to authorize a midlevel oral health [care] provider,” Hogan said. “Legislators, dentists, hygienists, and health care advocates alike recognize the dire need to improve access to dental care in our state, and all parties came to the table to develop this proposed solution.

“Massachusetts now stands alone as the only state where a professional dental society and the legislature came together to address oral health care,” Hogan said.

‘All Massachusetts Residents Benefit’

Hogan says dental therapy is a natural evolution in health care and will benefit every resident in the state by reducing prices for essential dental care.

“Society has seen, over generations, how our medical system has evolved to meet the demands of patients, whether this is through the evolution of new provider types or simply expanding treatment settings,” Hogan said. “With greater opportunity to access diverse treatment services, all Massachusetts residents benefit.”

“By authorizing dental therapists to practice in Massachusetts, this legislation will increase the number of providers who have the training and flexibility necessary to reach our residents and treat everyday dental problems, ensuring individuals get the care they need before problems persist,” Hogan said. “Dental therapists will open new appointment availability and be able to treat patients when care is needed, saving patients time and money.”

Serving the Underserved

The Arc of Massachusetts, a statewide nonprofit organization that works on behalf of developmentally disabled people, has pushed for the bill for more than two years. Disabled people would particularly benefit from licensing of dental therapists, says Maura Sullivan, director of government affairs for The Arc of Massachusetts.

“Dental therapists will help people with disabilities in multiple ways,” Sullivan said. “They will be required to have training in how to provide and enhance care for people with autism and intellectual developmental disabilities.”

Sullivan says the state currently does not have enough dentists trained to work with the disabled population.

“Providing training opens up the practices because it helps build confidence and knowledge as well as affecting attitudes and bias,” Sullivan said.

“We hope that the final version of this bill, maybe by 2020, will include the mobility of the dental therapist, which would greatly help serve people who cannot get out to the offices,” Sullivan said. “We believe the dental therapist will provide much more preventative and basic care, which will lead to many less emergency department visits, pain, discomfort, or even death from infections.”