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Friday, February 22, 2013

Dental Care Program Sparks Controversy In Minnesota

Millions of Americans are forgoing dental care, as a result of the cost and dentist shortages. There's a program in Minnesota aimed at addressing the problem, but critics say it compromises patient safety. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

Millions of Americans are forgoing dental care as a result of the cost and dentist shortages. A program in Minnesota is aimed at addressing the problem, but critics say it compromises patient safety. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

About 130 million Americans have no dental insurance, three times the number who don’t have general health insurance. And even when people have dental insurance, it covers so little that dentists think of it as a prepayment plan, rather than true insurance.

On top of the financial impediments, Nearly 50 million Americans live in areas with a dentist shortage.

The result is that millions of Americans are forgoing routine dental care, even when they are suffering acute pain.

Slate magazine’s June Thomas calls dental care the “other health care crisis.”

“Poor dental health is a serious problem,” Thomas told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “There is evidence connecting gum disease to diabetes, heart and lung ailments, and premature birth. Without good teeth, it’s very difficult to get many middle class jobs. And hard to chew nutritional food.”

Thomas went to Minnesota to report on a new program there, centered on training dental therapists to perform some of the functions of dentists.

The program has been successful, and a dozen other states are debating a version.

But critics, including dentists, say that patient safety is at stake, and they worry that it’s consigning people to lower-level dental care.

As one dentist put it, “I went to college and dental school for eight years in order to receive the education necessary to safely perform irreversible procedures upon the human body. It is clear that this level of education cannot be achieved in two or three years. Isn’t it interesting that the proponents of the low-level provider scheme intend that it be used for OTHER people’s healthcare, and not for their own?”

Would you be OK with a dental therapist filling your cavity instead of a dentist? Let us know on Facebook.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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