The Leaflet: Heartland Supports Dental Therapy

Published March 1, 2019

In a new Heartland Policy Brief, “The State Lawmaker’s Case for Legalizing Dental Therapy,” Research Fellow Michael Hamilton and former State Government Relations Manager Charlie Katebi make a compelling case for expanding dental access through dental therapy.

Hamilton and Katebi begin the Policy Brief with some disturbing facts about the state of dentistry. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, roughly 17 percent of Americans (58 million people) live in “dental care health professional shortage areas.”

Even worse, for many Americans, dental services are unaffordable. In 2017, almost half of low-income families admitted that they did not recently visit a dentist because the service is too expensive, not covered by insurance, or unavailable nearby, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Consequently, emergency room (ER) doctors become the dentist-of-last-resort for low-income patients. ADA found patients visited ERs more than two million times for dental conditions in 2015, costing taxpayers $2 billion.

Fortunately, dental therapy has developed as a legitimate, safe practice of dentistry, which can increase dental care access and affordability. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Research has confirmed that [dental therapists] provide high-quality, cost-effective routine care and improve access to treatment in parts of the country where dentists are scarce.”

Unfortunately, adoption of dental therapy in this country has been monumentally slow. Currently, 43 states completely outlaw dental therapy. Only four (Alaska, Minnesota, Maine, and Vermont) of the seven states that do approve dental therapy allow therapists to serve all patients, not just certain population groups.

Recently, lawmakers in several states have recognized the potential health and financial gains dental therapy could give to their constituents and have introduced legislation that would legalize the practice. For example, Idaho has pending legislation that would authorize an aspirant to practice dental therapy after he or she graduates from an accredited dental therapy school and completes 500 hours of clinical practice under the direct supervision of a dentist.

Hamilton and Katebi “applaud and affirm the efforts of dentists and lawmakers to reach underserved patients. Legalizing the hire of dental therapists by willing dentists does not in any way jeopardize concurrent efforts. We submit that the more options lawmakers authorize, the more options dentists will have at their disposal to reach patients in need, with the help of their hired dental hygienists, dental assistants, and dental therapists.”

State legislators across the country can expect to receive a complimentary copy of “The State Lawmaker’s Case for Legalizing Dental Therapy” included with the March edition of Heartland’s Health Care News.


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