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Lawmakers Push Bill To Certify Dental Therapists

Supporters Say Mid-Level Providers Could Improve Access To Care

dentist equipment
viviandnguyen (CC-BY-SA)

Those who support the state licensing a new type of mid-level dental provider are pushing ahead with legislation that will get a public hearing Wednesday before the Assembly’s Medicaid and Oversight Reform Committee.

Under bills authored by Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, and Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, dental therapists would work under the supervision of dentists. They would be able to provide preventive and routine restorative care, such as filling cavities, placing temporary crowns and extracting severely diseased or loose teeth.

“It is a huge cost to our state. It’s a cost as far as quality of life and taxpayer dollars. We are spending over $25 million on emergency room visits for untreated oral health care,” said Felzkowski.

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Wisconsin has long struggled to provide dental care for those with lower incomes. Many don’t have dental insurance or are in the Medicaid program which dentists say doesn’t pay enough to cover their costs.

Monica Hebl owns Burleigh Dental in Milwaukee. Her practice accepts Medicaid patients, but she acknowledges most of her colleagues across the state do not.

“You need to make it economically feasible to participate in this program. I don’t know what other business can function at 25 to 27 cents on the dollar,” Hebl said.

The Wisconsin Dental Association (WDA) and the Marquette University School of Dentistry oppose the proposal to create and license dental therapists. Both are concerned about the level of training therapists would receive.

In addition, the WDA argues that higher Medicaid reimbursement for dentists treating low-income patients could improve access, along with other incentives to get dentists to practice in rural areas like student loan relief.

The federal government says 64 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have a shortage of dentists.

The bill does not require dental therapists to locate in underserved areas but would allow those licensed in Minnesota to practice in Wisconsin, according to Felzkowski.

She said the latter could temporarily help address the shortage of dentists providing care to low-income patients until a school is accredited to train dental therapists and those students are ready for the workforce.

A proposal to allow dental therapists was included in Gov. Tony Evers’ budget but was taken out of the final spending plan approved by the Legislature.

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