« June 2015 Issue

Momentum for Dental Therapists Building on Multiple Fronts

The movement to establish dental therapists as members of the oral health care team is gaining significant momentum as a result of strong community-led efforts in states across the country. In the past few months, there have been several important strides toward making the training and licensure of dental therapists a reality. In both the legislative and regulatory arenas, Community Catalyst’s Dental Access Project has played an active role in mobilizing community groups to call for routine dental care for the millions of Americans in underserved and rural communities.

In February, the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) voted overwhelmingly to adopt national training standards for dental therapy education programs. The vote signaled that dentistry’s accrediting body understands it is in the best interest of the dental profession and the public to develop national standards for dental therapy education. This is an important step toward dentistry adopting team-based providers – a step the medical community took decades ago when it expanded the medical team to include physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

Making an impact on CODA’s deliberations meant getting beyond highly technical regulatory discussions to keep the focus on what building the ranks of this profession means to the 45 million Americans living in underserved and rural communities lacking access to dental care. According to Dental Access Project Director David Jordan, “Utilizing the commission’s public comment process, we were able to mobilize hundreds of people to weigh in and support our position that dental therapist training paths will both provide jobs to people from underserved low-income communities, and in turn, bring culturally-competent local dental care to those communities.”

On the legislative front, exciting breakthroughs have come this spring in two of the five states the Dental Access Project supports – New Mexico and Vermont. In New Mexico, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 34-25 to establish dental therapists in the state. The state Senate then passed Senate Memorial 136 to establish formal negotiations on the topic while the full legislature is in recess this summer. There is no question that the broad-based coalition that came together to strongly advocate for dental therapists helped achieve these legislative victories. The Dental Access Project worked with Health Action New Mexico to bring together diverse, and sometimes unlikely, partners from community, civic, corporate and faith-based organizations to unite behind this urgently needed expansion in oral health providers. The extensive grassroots efforts for dental therapy legislation in New Mexico brought together more than 250 coalition and community partners at an Advocacy Day at the Statehouse, mobilized 3,270 New Mexicans to call their legislators, and collected 2,250 petition signatures and emails to legislators in support.

In Vermont, efforts organized by Voices for Vermont’s Children led to thousands of consumers making their voices heard to help spur passage of a dental therapist bill in the state Senate. At the end of this legislative session, the bill ended up in the House’s Health Services Committee, where it will be considered when the session begins in January. 

From its inception in 2009, the Dental Access Project has been solidly embedded in efforts to address racial and health inequities.  “Our fundamental approach is to recruit and train new mid-level dental providers from within communities of color, and underserved and low-income rural regions, to provide meaningful new employment opportunities, while also building a cadre of providers who have the cultural competence to best understand and serve the communities they grew up in,” said Jordan. “In Alaska, the first state to license the profession in 2005, this has led to the training and retention of locally-recruited dental therapists now in the field caring for 40,000 previously underserved Alaska Natives.”

This effort transcends the partisan divide evident in most ongoing conversations about health care policy and delivery. Free market and conservative groups such as Americans for Tax Reform and Americans for Prosperity Kansas support similar efforts to license mid-level providers in states such as Texas and Kansas. 

The Dental Access Project, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is also looking farther down the line to implementation, working with community colleges in each partner state on training new practitioners, as part of its comprehensive advocacy campaign. Once legislation is passed, community colleges will be key partners in implementing new training programs, and helping to recruit students from within underserved communities. There are many reasons for optimism that 2015 will continue to see strong progress in this effort to address the national crisis in oral health care.

Bruce Gore, Communications Coordinator

O N   T H E   W I R E

Inside Philanthropy and The Chronicle of Philanthropy covered the announcement of the $14.8 million grant awarded by The Atlantic Philanthropies to Community Catalyst for The Center for Consumer and Community Engagement in Health System Transformation.

The Voices for Better Health project released a new video, “Building Bridges to Better Health,” highlighting an innovative collaboration between providers and consumer advocates to infuse geriatrics best practices into the Demonstration Projects for people with both Medicare and Medicaid (dual eligibles). The video was screened on May 15 at the AGS Annual Scientific Meeting, at a forum jointly hosted by Community Catalyst and The John A. Hartford Foundation ChangeAGEnts initiative.

Project Director Alice Dembner speaks with Insurance News Net about the need for stronger federal regulations to make mental health care a priority.

Katherine Howitt, Associate Director of Policy, explains how momentum from the outside helped push Montana’s Medicaid Expansion bill in POLITICO.

On New Hampshire Public Radio, Dental Access Project Director David Jordan explains the important impact dental therapists have on improving communities’ access to oral health.

Join us in congratulating recently promoted staff members: Melinda Crosby to Development Coordinator; Lucy Dagneau to Associate Director of Communications; Katherine Howitt to Associate Director of Policy; and Emily Polk to Program & Policy Associate. 

Community Catalyst Annual Breakfast
November 4, 2015
One Federal Street Boston, MA 02110

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