Lawmakers looking at 'dental therapists'

Oct 31, 2013

A Legislative interim committee is looking at ways to make dental services more available to North Dakotans who need those services.

Studies show that people who live in rural areas, low-income adults, Medicaid-eligible children, the elderly and Native Americans do not have adequate access to dental care.

"Dental care is expensive," University of Minnesota Dental School dean Dr. Leon Assael told the Legislature's interim Health Services Committee. "It's got a great unmet need. Can we reduce the costs of dental care and meet that unmet need?"

Committee Minnesota now allows “dental therapists” to perform some of the procedures, such as dental check-ups and fillings. Assael says the idea is to have those therapists work to help prevent and correct tooth decay.

"That is a serious disease," said Assael. "If you see someone with decayed teeth, that person is sitting on a time bomb."

Assael says he believes dental therapy will help correct this, at a lower cost.

Peggy Metzer is the CEO of People’s Center Health Services, located in the Twin Cities. She says the center hired one therapist a couple of years ago, and will be hiring a second.

"We are now going to see our dentists work at the top of their licensure," Metzer told the committee. "They would not be able to do that if we didn't have dental therapists who do a lot of the prevention and education, and a lot of the fillings and some of the more routine procedures."

Alaska also allows dental therapists, to treat Native peoples in Alaska. Dr. Mary Willard is the therapist training director for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She told the committee via Skype there was an initial resistance from the dental community.

"Even in the face of this opposition, dental therapy is the right thing to do for the people in your communities that need better access to dental care," said Willard.