Bill aims to increase dentistry availability

A file photo of Michigan's Capitol Building in Lansing on May 25, 2016.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Many of us hate going to the dentist, but there are some Michigan residents who can’t go because those services simply aren’t available.

Numbers provided by the Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health show 14 percent fewer adults visited the dentist between 2010 and 2014, 25 percent of third graders have untreated dental disease and 32 percent of Michigan residents lacked dental insurance in 2015.

There are 77 counties in Michigan out of 83 with rural or urban areas that are experiencing a dentist shortage.

A Michigan Senate bill is aimed at alleviating a shortage of dentist taking care of the underserved. The bill would expand access to oral health care about allowing dental therapist to operate under the direction of dentist.

Part of the reason is a lack of access to dental care.

Many of those in West Michigan who are underserved when it comes to their dentistry needs ended up at Cherry Health’s Heart of the City Health Center.

They handle about 31,000 dental patients a year in a nine county area.

But there are about 200,000 in those areas that still need help.

“We’ve been unable to hire the number of dentist that we need to service our patients,” said Cherry Health CEO Chris Shea.

Shea and others say allowing dentist to hire dental therapist could help alleviate the problem.

“It’s very much like a physician’s assistant in that the training is not as extensive as it is for a dentist, but then the services they need to perform are not as extensive as what a dentist does,” Shea said.

Dental therapist are trained in the basics, like cavity filling and tooth extractions.

Supporters believe they can improve preventive dental services to the underserved, at a lower cost.

But not everyone’s buying into the idea.

“We feel the current workforce should be better utilized before you create a new one,” said Bill Sullivan, Vice President of Advocacy & Professional Relations for the Michigan Dental Association.

The state association and their parent organization the American Dental Association are against the measure in Michigan, as well as similar bills in a number of other states.

Sullivan says there are plenty of dental service providers in Michigan.

The association is involved in various programs aimed at getting more dentist into underserved areas, which is a difficult task because dentist need to make a living.

Sullivan points to Medicaid reimbursements, which are set at 20 percent for dentists seeing adult patients.

His association is pushing for programs that offer incentives to dentist, like Healthy Kids.

The dental program increases Medicaid reimbursements for dentist who see kids at 60 percent.

“Under that program, dentist are participating, kids are being seen and it’s because dentist aren’t losing money when they see these patients,” said Sullivan.

The bill is out of committee and awaiting action by the full senate.