Congress Blocks Midlevel Dental Healthcare Provider Projects

Laird Harrison

May 03, 2011

May 3, 2011 — After making strides in recent years, advocates for midlevel oral health provider programs ran into setbacks this year in both state legislatures and the US Congress.

The law allocating spending for the US government through September 30, 2011, prohibits spending on alternative oral health provider pilot programs, and some bills in state legislatures have stalled or died in committee in recent months.

Much of this legislation has pitted hygienists associations and oral health foundations against the largest organizations of dentists.

At the national level, proponents are pushing to fund the "alternative dental health care providers demonstration projects" authorized by last year's healthcare reform law. President Barack Obama has asked Congress to fund 6 such programs with $800,000 each in 2012.

The midlevel providers in these pilot programs could be community dental health coordinators, advance practice dental hygienists, independent dental hygienists, supervised dental hygienists, primary care physicians, dental therapists, or dental health aides.

They would be evaluated for their ability to "increase access to dental health care services in rural and other underserved communities."

Congress debated funding the pilot programs while working on the continuing resolution that allocated money for the US government through September, but in the end they specifically prohibited such funding.

In a written statement, American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA) President Caryn Solie, RDH, said her organization was working with "more than 60 others" to get the funding for 2012 "and beyond."

"ADHA is disappointed with the inclusion of a provision in the Continuing Resolution prohibiting funding for the Alternative Dental Health Care Provider Demonstration Grants this year," she said.

She argued that the programs would allow hygienists to help Americans who currently are not able to get oral healthcare.

The American Dental Association (ADA), in contrast, has lobbied against the pilot programs. "We have a long-standing position against any pilots for any program that involves nondentists doing irreversible procedures," said Matthew J Neary, DDS, a New York City periodontist who chairs the ADA's Council on Governmental Affairs.

He said there are better ways to improve access to oral health, such as preventive health programs and dental residency programs in underserved communities.

The ADA does support one model of new oral healthcare provider: the community dental health coordinator, trained to help people in underserved communities navigate through the healthcare system, Dr. Neary said.

However, that proposal falls short of a new practitioner "midlevel" between a hygienist and a dentist, as advocated by the ADHA and some activist groups.

"The more professionals look into folks' mouths and provide education the better, but the fact is that folks need treatment," said David Jordan, director of the Dental Access Project of Community Catalyst.

With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Community Catalyst is organizing coalitions in 5 states to advocate for midlevel providers who can prepare and place fillings and extract teeth, in addition to doing educational and preventive work.

Such providers — dental health aide therapists — are already doing this kind of work in Alaska through a federal program for indigenous people, and dental therapists are also being trained along similar lines in Minnesota as a result of a 2009 law.

Community Catalyst supports new dental therapist legislation in 5 other states, Jordan said. He gave the following overview of state legislation:

  • Kansas: A dental therapist bill is under consideration in both the state House of Representatives (HB 2280) and the (Senate SB 192).

  • Washington: HB 1310 is stalled in the House of Representatives Healthcare and Wellness Committee and is unlikely to be heard until next session.

  • New Mexico: HB 495 bill died in the business committee of the House of Representatives.

  • Vermont: HB 398 is in the House of Representatives Human Services Committee, but is unlikely to be heard until next year.

  • Ohio: A bill has not yet come to the legislature, but on April 27 a public opinion poll funded by Catalyst showed two thirds of Ohio voters in favor of starting a dental therapist program in that state.

Although the group could not claim any clear victories, "We're happy that there was attention, and the need was brought to light," said Jordan.

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