Big smiles in Vermont over dental therapy

Jun 19, 2016

What some see as a revolution in dentistry is happening in Vermont.  On Monday, the governor will highlight a new law that allows the practice of dental therapy.

Dental therapists, who work under the supervision of dentists, may make it easier for low-income residents to get care. In Vermont — and pretty much everywhere else — if you’re poor, getting dental care is tough.

Twenty percent of dentists nationwide accept Medicaid. Vermont dentist Dr. Patrick Rowe says he could see how dental therapists could make it easier to get into his office.

"My hope is with a dental therapist, because of the lower cost of employing a dental therapist, I’m able to open up the practice more days and see more Medicaid patients," Rowe said. "And at least break even."

A dental therapist falls between a hygienist and a dentist — with license to drill, fill and extract. 

Vermont joins Minnesota as the second state to develop a program. The American Dental Association and state dental societies have successfully fought this legislation around the country.

But Tera Bianchi, who's with advocacy group Community Catalyst, said the tide may be turning.

"We do really see this as a tipping point, with close to a dozen states looking to employ dental therapists as part of the dental team," Bianchi. "There are tribes in Washington and Oregon that are training members of their communities to be dental therapists."

The Federal Trade Commission has endorsed this new profession, saying more qualified providers would enhance competition and could lead to lower prices.