- Associated Press - Sunday, April 16, 2017

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota’s experiment with dental therapists appears to be working.

Lawmakers authorized the licensing of the mid-level dental care providers eight years ago as a way to expand access to dental care in Minnesota, especially in low-income or rural areas. The profession is comparable to nurse practitioners.

Experts tell the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/2opYI58) that benefits have materialized since the first dental therapists began graduating in 2011.

Dental therapists saw as many as 90 percent of uninsured patients or patients on public assistance, according to a 2016 study by the University of Minnesota. And a 2014 study by the Minnesota Department of Health showed that almost a third of all patients saw a reduction in wait times to get an appointment, especially in rural areas.

Hiring dental therapists can also save money. Sarah Wovcha, executive director of Children’s Dental Service, a nonprofit clinic that treats low-income or uninsured children and pregnant women, noted that a dentist might make an average of $75 an hour for a filling. She said a dental therapist could make about half that much for the same work.

“We as a clinic are saving around $1,200 a week,” Wovcha said. That amounts to about $62,400 a year, or roughly the cost to hire another full-time dental therapist.

Dental care access for low-income people is an issue nationwide, but especially in Minnesota. The state has some of the lowest reimbursement rates for pediatric dental care services in the country, which results in dentists saying they can’t afford to treat any or many Medical Assistance patients.

The impact of dental therapists is small for now: Only about 70 licensed dental therapists are in Minnesota, according to the state health department. That compares to the roughly 3,000 dentists, 4,800 dental assistants and 3,200 dental hygienists practicing in Minnesota as of 2008. And so far, only two programs produce dental therapist graduates in Minnesota.

Still, other states are watching Minnesota and more research is underway, said Mark Schoenbaum, director of the Office of Rural Health and Primary Care at the Minnesota Department of Health.


Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com

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