2020 Set the Stage for Dental Therapy Legislation

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted patients across the country by limiting access to quality health care. Unfortunately, for millions of Americans, health care access was already inhibited before the pandemic. Moreover, access to quality dental care was not a luxury all Americans had before the onslaught of COVID-19, especially those living in rural areas.

According to the American Dental Association, 42 percent of Americans don’t see a dentist as often as they would like. Yet, 85 percent of Americans believe that oral health is very or extremely important to overall health. And approximately 60 percent of the nation’s dental health professional shortage areas are in rural America, according to a 2020 report.

There clearly aren’t enough dentists to meet demand and this is especially problematic for rural communities. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s ranking of “dental care health professional shortage areas,” in eight states, less than 30 percent of dental health needs are met.

This begs the question: What can be done to improve dental access? One policy solution that will be up for debate in the 2020 legislative session is expanding access to care through increasing dental therapy.

Dental therapy allows for expanded care to patients who have dentists’ shortages in their communities, which is an ever-growing problem. Many live too far from dental offices or lack expansive dental insurance coverage. Increasing access to dental therapists would help solve this problem.

The scope of practice for a dental therapist is similar to that of a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. The dental therapist works under a dentist and is able to meet basic needs of patients.

As of 2020, only 12 states have authorized the practice of dental therapy, including Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.

It is common sense public policy to expand dental therapy, and states have a financial incentive to do so.

Dental problems often lead to more serious issue like heart disease or respiratory problems. In 2014, $1.9 billion of taxpayer money was used for emergency room visits that could have been prevented if patients had routine dental exams. These types of visits to the ER are 100 percent preventable if more people had access to affordable dental care. Utilizing preventative medicine is a no brainer that state legislators should look to as a way to cut spending on unnecessary emergency room visits.

The idea of dental therapy is moving to the mainstream and becoming more normalized within society. A recent survey from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine found that 71 percent of Americans would be willing to receive dental care from lower cost providers, such as dental therapists.

It makes sense that state legislators move in the right direction by allowing Americans more choices for their dental care. This commonsense policy would alleviate the pressure on state budgets to cover expensive emergency room visits and it would allow more Americans to receive quality, affordable dental care, especially in rural communities, where dentist shortages are causing far too many Americans to forgo routine oral care.

Christina Herrin ([email protected]) is the government relations manager at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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