AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) - A study done for the state says thousands of Mainers don't have basic dental care, because they don't have easy access to a dentist.
Maine's Speaker of the House, Rep. Mark Eves (D-Berwick), wants the Legislature to improve that access by allowing dental therapists to practice here. Dental therapists are specially trained dental hygienists who are licensed to do basic dental procedures, including fillings and simple extractions.
A crowd of dentists and others packed a legislative hearing on the Rep. Eves' bill today. Supporters say dental therapists are already practicing in Alaska and Minnesota, and have been allowed for years in many other countries. They say the therapists would get one to two years of extra training after becoming hygienists, along with 500 hours of clinical practice.
He says therapists would be able to bring basic dental care to parts of Maine that don't have it now, and could provide care at lower cost than dentists. But the dentists say therapist training is not equal to theirs, and say allowing them to treat patients would pose a risk. Dr. Mary Willard, the dentist who trains therapists in Alaska says they have been practicing in that state for nine years, and there have been no problems. But Dr. Ann O'Keefe, a dentist in Waterville, said therapists aren't trained to handle complications that can occur from extractions and some other procedures, and she said the "scope of practice" allowed under the proposed Maine law would be muchy broader than what's permitted in Alaska and Minnesota.
Another dentist said the biggest obstacle to dental care for low income Mainers is that Maine Care will only pay for treatment at a hospital emergency room, not at a dentist office. Speaker Eves cited statistics that more than 55 percent of low income children on Maine Care...especially those in rural areas ... aren't seeing a dentist.
He told the committee the therapists could bring care to more of Maine. But a dentist said there's no guarantee that would happen.
The Legislature's Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee will debate the bill in the coming weeks.