June 18, 2013

Another View: Dental hygienist bill does not address Maine's oral health needs

Both a recent editorial and backers of the bill exaggerate the extent of the shortage.

By Dr. Jonathan Shenkin

Maine dentists continue to correct misleading information disseminated by a number of interest groups, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, seeking to pass a bill to create a new dental provider type allowed to drill, fill and extract teeth and dispense medications without a dentist on site.

Only Alaska and Minnesota allow a similar provider type. A recent editorial ("Our View: Lawmakers should back dental care expansion bill," June 14) doesn't mention two things. In Alaska, dental therapists are funded by the Indian Health Service, not the state, and can only provide services in remote villages. In Minnesota, the scope of practice is narrower than what is proposed here, and the model is so new that there is insufficient information to prove its effectiveness.

An inaccurate statistic frequently cited by proponents of the bill is that 65 percent of MaineCare children do not have a dental home. They fail to disclose that MaineCare children who visit dentists at any of Maine's 18 federally qualified health center dental clinics are not tallied on the federal form reporting this data. This is a grave oversight. In 2011, these dental clinics reported more than 90,000 visits.

The inaccurate conclusions drawn from this and other flawed reports continue to be repeated in arguments for a new dental provider type with far less clinical training than dentists.

Given our low rate of untreated tooth decay in third-graders -- Maine had the second lowest in the nation in 2011 -- the state has been doing many things right. We need to continue to increase children's access to evidence-based dental prevention, which, in turn, will mean even more kids get oral assessments, preventive services and ultimately restorative care when indicated.

More can be found at www.dental accessformaine.org. Get the facts on L.D. 1230 and ask your legislators to support quality oral health care.

Dr. Jonathan Shenkin of Augusta is a pediatric dentist and a member of the faculty at Boston University School of Dental Medicine.

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