In 2013, the Maine Legislature took on what seemed like an innocuous workforce development and health care access bill. L.D. 1230, An Act to Improve Access to Oral Health Care, was sponsored by then-House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and was co-sponsored by then-Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting. The two members were far apart on many issues but were united in ensuring that both rural and urban Maine had access to quality dental care.

This bill created a path for dental hygienists to continue to grow in their career and pursue the required education to become dental therapists, who are mid-level providers who operate a higher scope of practice allowing more patients to receive care. At that time, dental therapists had been sanctioned only by two other states: Alaska and Minnesota. Both states have rural and underserved populations who had very low access to dental care – similar to Maine.

Both states had opened schools that were approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation and had seen great success in their ability to go into these populations and provide care that otherwise would have been unattainable for so many reasons. Dental therapists had proven in these two states that the dental therapy model was a success and could reach the underserved populations who it was intended to reach.

To my dismay, many of my fellow dentists did not see this as a positive step forward for dentistry and health care in Maine. In fact, there were articles at the time that talked of over 100 dentists coming to Augusta to wring their hands in front of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee and play their best “Chicken Little.” To their dismay, the bill passed over their objections and was signed into law by then-Gov. Paul LePage. A rare bipartisan victory for Maine people.

Fast forward to 2023 and this bipartisan health care win has been collecting dust in the law books of the state of Maine. While Mainers continue to struggle to receive care in Maine’s rural areas, one may ask: Why have we not seen an influx of dental therapists?

While we have great access to dental hygienists here in Maine through our education system, we do not have the level of training between hygienist and dentist. The answer is simple: We do not have a dental therapy school. As the owner of Maine Dentistry, I am proud to be surrounded by excellent professionals who work every day to improve their skills for themselves and their patients. Many of the hygienists who work for me would love to become dental therapists, but it simply isn’t in the cards to pack up their family and move to Minnesota or Alaska for two years to complete the required training. It’s time for us to put our money where our mouth is (pun intended) and open a dental therapy school.

This year, Rep. Anne-Marie Mastracchio, D-Sanford, sponsored L.D. 1026, a bill that would direct the University of Maine System to establish a dental therapy degree program,  the correct step in opening a school here in Maine. The Legislature amended this legislation into a study to determine the feasibility of a dental therapy school. Just a few weeks ago, the Legislature passed and Gov. Mills signed L.D. 1026 into law. While my colleagues stood in strong opposition 10 years ago, I, as well as many other dentists, stand ready to support this program and ensure that we put our patients and our employees first by bringing a dental therapy school to Maine.

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