The Maine House on Tuesday voted in favor of a bill that would create a new dental health position in the state – a “mid-level dental therapist.” The bill is an attempt to increase access to dental care, especially in rural areas, proponents said.
The dental therapist would be licensed to perform more dental work than a hygienist is permitted to do, but would not be as highly trained as a dentist. For instance, a dental therapist would be able to fill cavities, but not perform root canals. The relationship is similar to a nurse-practitioner and a doctor, advocates said.
The House backed the bill 102 to 39, but it still needs to survive another vote in the House and two Senate votes to become law.
The Maine Dental Association is lobbying against the law, arguing that there is no shortage of dentists, and that a new dental school at the University of New England will help offset any future shortfalls.
“There are efforts under way to increase the number of dentists in Maine,” said Dan Cashman, a spokesman for the MDA.
Cashman said most Maine residents live within 15 miles of a dentist, and the state has lower rates of untreated tooth decay than the national average.
“Maine is in a good place,” he said.
But with about 600 practicing dentists, Maine has the lowest number of dentists per capita in New England, and 40 percent of Maine’s dentists are approaching retirement, according to a coalition of the bill’s supporters, which include the Pew Research Center and the American Dental Hygienists Association.
Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford and a co-sponsor of the bill, said there’s strong demand for the new profession. Minnesota and Alaska are the only two states with licensed dental therapists, but those states, like Maine, have a similar need for dental care in rural areas, she said.
“We are graduating thousands of dental hygienists, but we don’t have enough dentists for them to work for,” Mastraccio said. “This gives them another career path.”
Mastraccio said if the bill becomes law, universities and colleges will be permitted to immediately start offering dental therapist programs, which would require an additional 18 months to two years of education, 1,000 hours of clinical training and passing a licensing test.
In addition to working alongside dentists at private practices, dental therapists would be permitted to practice in nursing homes, schools and assisted-living centers.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said the bill is a potential solution to the state’s lack of dental care access, especially in rural areas.
“We really needed to do something about this,” Eves said.
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