Health Care Advocates Push to Close Gap in Oral Health Access in Massachusetts

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


(Boston, MA) - Today, Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler, House Chairman Smitty Pignatelli, and House Chairwoman Kate Hogan rallied a crowd of supporters behind joint legislation aimed at bridging the Commonwealth's dental health gap. Health Care For All, Dental Care for Massachusetts and a congregation of passionate advocates representing more than 55 community groups convened before a State House press conference in support of S.1169/H.2474, An Act authorizing dental therapists to expand access to oral health.

"Dental therapists are mid-level providers, similar to a nurse practitioner, that provide preventive and routine care under a dentist's supervision. They fill a major gap in access, helping people in schools, health centers, nursing homes, and other community settings get high-quality care," said Amy Rosenthal, Executive Director of Health Care For All. "Dental therapy combats the striking disparities in oral health. It also provides opportunities for well-paying, stable employment, generating economic growth in the community while serving the needs of residents." 

"Hopefully, in the year 2017, when we use the term health - it encompasses physical, behavioral and oral health," said Marylou Sudders, Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. "The creation of a mid-level dental therapy program will improve oral health care access while generating savings for the Commonwealth." 

"It cannot be stated often enough: too many people are deprived of dental care," said Senator Chandler. "This legislation gives midlevel practitioners the freedom to work flexibly and efficiently, to ensure that the best care is delivered to the greatest amount of people. Our bipartisan coalition agrees that with this legislation we have a solution - and after nearly four years of debate, it's time for this solution to become law."

Importantly, under this legislation, dental therapists are free to offer their services to the open market - they are not restricted to treating only those who are enrolled in MassHealth.

"Proper dental care is as much a human right as proper medical care and Massachusetts needs true midlevel providers who can deliver safe, cost-effective dental care to those who most need it," said Representative Pignatelli. "The legislation Senator Chandler, Representative Hogan, and I introduced will expand access not just for people on MassHealth, but also for the uninsured, seniors, and others struggling to get to a dentist or afford costly dental services. The time has come to make quality, affordable dental care accessible to everyone who needs it."

"A visit to the dentist is something many of us take for granted, but for thousands of Massachusetts residents who are either low-income, elderly, or live in rural parts of the state, routine dental care can be impossible to access," said Representative Hogan. "The health impacts this lack of access creates are far-reaching, as untreated dental issues can contribute to additional, more serious medical conditions down the road. By authorizing dental therapists who can reach these vulnerable populations, this bill brings us closer to ensuring that all Massachusetts residents - from every income bracket and corner of the Commonwealth - have access to the care they need to lead full and healthy lives."

Other states have already implemented similar legislation. In Minnesota, Advanced Dental Therapists are already connecting vulnerable populations with the oral health care they need.

"I see children, seniors, a large immigrant population, and people with disabilities all from an incredibly diverse population. Over 90% of my patients are on Medicaid/state based insurance or uninsured. I do exams, restorative work including fillings, stainless steel crowns, baby teeth extractions and emergency care.  All while in constant contact with my supervising dentists. All diagnosing is made by one of my collaborating dentists," said Katy Leiviska, a licensed Advanced Dental Therapists from Minnesota. "Dental therapy will not solve every problem facing our dental care delivery system but it has made a significant difference in the lives of thousands of people that come through our doors at HealthPartners by simply increasing access to care."

In Massachusetts, many could benefit from this initiative, as 530,000 people in the state live in areas with a shortage of dentists and almost half of all children on MassHealth did not see a dentist in 2015. 

"Scores of poor and working people throughout the Commonwealth, through no fault of their own, are held hostage by the dental profession simply because of their economic situation. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are denied access to care simply because doctors don't like their insurance coverage, and as a consequence long term health care needs are ignored and exacerbated because of their condition," said Horace Small, Executive Director at The Union of Minority Neighborhoods. "The enactment of dental therapist legislation will provide quality care to those in need and improve the long-term health care prospects for all citizens in Massachusetts. The legislature can't enact this legislation fast enough."