In a poll conducted for the American for Tax Reform Foundation by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research, likely voters overwhelmingly support a new and innovative solution to America’s dentist shortage. In what has been called a “big idea” for social change, a new type of mid-level dental practitioners has emerged as a possible way to reduce health care costs while increasing access to care for millions of Americans seeking dental services throughout the United States.
Like dental hygienists, “dental therapists” or “dental hygiene practitioners” work under the supervision of dentists with collaborative agreements that allow them to provide an expanded list of services to patients. Governor Paul LePage (R-Maine) and former Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) were the first to sign legislation permitting the creation of these mid-level practitioners in their states.
Conducted at the end of June, the ATRF poll found that 79% of likely voters support the creation of mid-level providers that could perform dental care services such as basic extractions and hygiene plans.
In analyzing the results, WPA Opinion Research concluded,
“This support extends across all key demographic groups including men and women of all ages, Republicans, Independents, Democrats, white, and Hispanic voters. The support for such a process extends across a wide swath of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, ethnicity or gender.
77% of Republicans, 80% of Independents, and 80% of Democrats support the process of creating these new positions, which takes an act of the legislature in most cases. Additionally, 58% of voters strongly support this position, “illustrating that the support is not just casual and implementing this process would be welcomed by voters across the country.”
In an article for the Wall Street Journal titled, “You Don’t Need to Be a Dentist to Fill a Cavity,” Reason.com reporter Eric Boehm recently explained the issue and some of it’s misguided opponents:
“Other states are considering dental therapy, but professional associations of dentists stand opposed. Take Michigan, where state Sen. Mike Shirkey introduced a dental therapy bill in June. Shortly thereafter, the Michigan Dental Association urged its members to oppose the bill. The association says that Michigan already has 7,500 dentists and 10,300 hygienists, which it insists should be enough to cover the state’s needs.”
In an interview with Wendell Potter at the Huffington Post, ATR president Grover Norquist went further in explaining ATR’s interest in this issue:
“When I asked Norquist recently why he has gotten involved in the fight to expand the dental workforce to include mid-levels—often called dental therapists—he told me it’s because, in his view, opponents are engaging in tactics to preserve a profitable status quo at the expense of millions of Americans. To him, this smacks of “crony capitalism” in which businesses and professionals exert influence on government officials, usually through campaign contributions and lobbyists, to get favorable treatment.”
Of the opportunities these new mid-level dental practitioner positions present, Grover went on to note:
“It’s going to have significant pay off, not only for people trying to move ahead in their careers and for consumers who need dental care” but also for dentists, who, Norquist notes, will be able to spend more time doing more complex, higher end procedures.”
While the states have grappled with implementing a wide range of federal health care mandates, questions about rising costs the next steps in health care reform have lingered in Washington. Fortunately, states don’t have to wait to act. Efforts to expand the scope of practice for dental hygienists with this new position do present great promise for qualified dental professionals and the millions of Americans interested in taking advantage of the services they can provide.