AUGUSTA – A bill designed to help expand access to dental care in Maine deeply divided a legislative committee Friday, with supporters saying it’s time to help poor children in rural areas and opponents arguing that the bill is not the right solution.

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, who has served in the Legislature for more than 10 years, said the issue is one of the toughest he has dealt with as a lawmaker.

The bill, L.D. 1230, would allow specially trained hygienists to perform expanded duties, some of which now are performed by dentists. The Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee voted 6–5 in support of it Friday, but that total will change once two more legislators record their votes.

Dentists fought hard against the bill, calling it unnecessary and saying it gives too much responsibility to those with far less training.

Patrick said he would support an amended version of the bill, although he said he struggled with the decision.”Do you think we should give the opportunity for hygienists to further their education, possibly at the expense of dentists?” he said.

Rep. Jim Campbell, an independent from Newfield, told Patrick the bill isn’t about dentists.

“You’re voting for poor children in rural areas that need your help,” he said.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, sponsored the bill in an effort to improve access to dental health care for children, particularly those who live in rural areas. During a public hearing in April, he cited a study commissioned by the Legislature. The study found that while two-thirds of the state’s population lives in a rural area, only 13.5 percent of dentists practice in those areas.

Eves said more than 55 percent of children on MaineCare did not see a dentist in 2009, and in that same year there were 11,960 separate dental-related MaineCare emergency room visits that cost a total of $6.6 million.

As originally written, L.D. 1230 would have given dental hygiene therapists the power to pull teeth, administer anesthesia and prescribe anti-inflammatories and other drugs in consultation with a supervising dentist. However, the committee adopted an amendment that removes the ability to prescribe medications and allows extraction only of baby teeth or in instances of severe decay. It also increases training time from 500 to 1,000 hours.

 

Susan Cover can be contacted at 621-5643 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com