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Washington State Lawmakers Consider Bill To Expand Dental Care

Patient at dentist.
Flickr / watanyou intachai

There's no question that oral health is part of good overall health. But for many low-income people, getting dental care is not always within reach. A state House committee is considering a bill that would create two new kinds of midlevel dental professionals.

Supporters like Dr. Ray Dailey say these providers would not replace dentists, but instead would expand their reach to patients. Dailey is a dentist for the Swinomish and Upper Skagit Indian Tribes. He says he would welcome this kind of help at his clinic.

“There are days when we may have anywhere between five to 10 [patients] that come in the morning and I am the only dentist here. If we have this midlevel provider, I could almost triage my patients," says Dailey. "Those that just need fillings or small restorations or chipped teeth, this person could do that sort of work while I focus [on] things that are more serious and require more of my time.”

Dailey says he’s seen midlevel practitioners at work in Alaska where dentists are in short supply. They provide routine care so that dental problems don’t become worse and require emergency intervention.

This is the second attempt to create midlevel dental practitioners. A similar bill failed last year. Dr. Danny Warner is president of the Washington State Dental Association. The association opposed the bill last time and opposes the current proposal.

"We feel like making another person that really can't provide the full care that a dentist could provide is going at it the wrong way," says Warner.

The association’s solution is to reinstate dental coverage for adults on Medicaid. Right now the state’s Medicaid program only pays for dental emergencies. The association also recommends dental residency programs as a way to reach underserved communities.

“There’s many new graduates working a little bit at many offices because they can’t find full-time associate-ships or offices to work in,” says Warner.

Both sides agree the demand for dental care is growing. Many people who put off their dental problems often end up in emergency rooms. It’s estimated Washington state spends about $12 million a year treating toothaches in the emergency room.