By Miranda Spindt
In a huge win for dental access in Wisconsin, a bill allowing the licensure of Dental Therapists in Wisconsin recently passed both houses of the legislature with bipartisan support.
SB 689, introduced by Sen. Mary Felzkowski, allows for the licensure of dental therapists—mid-level practitioners with more training than dental hygienists but less than dentists—to engage in a limited practice of dentistry. To obtain a dental therapist license, individuals must meet specific criteria, including completing a dental therapy program and passing required exams. Dental therapists operate under the general supervision of a dentist through collaborative management agreements, with defined services and procedures.
This change has had bipartisan support for many years. Legislative Republicans introduced a bill advocating for dental therapy in 2017, and Governor Evers included a proposal to allow dental therapists in his 2019 budget. WILL has supported this policy change since 2019—joining a coalition with various groups in support—and including it as part of our healthcare policy agenda.
In Wisconsin, concerns about healthcare access extend beyond traditional medical services. Dental care is often overlooked but is crucial for overall well-being. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, over 1.6 million Wisconsinites lack access to dental care, posing risks for various adverse health outcomes. This issue is particularly pronounced in rural areas designated as Healthcare Provider Shortage Areas (HPSAs), and for low-income and elderly individuals, as only a third of Wisconsin dentists accept Medicaid patients.
Lack of dental care can lead to severe consequences, including tooth loss, gum disease, oral cancer, and has even been found to be correlated with heart disease and dementia. The situation is compounded in HPSAs, where the shortage of primary, dental, or mental healthcare providers is more severe. Wisconsin currently has 180 HPSA designations, which would require approximately 279 dentists to correct. Marquette University—the only dental school in Wisconsin—graduates around 100 dentists annually. However, they do not tend to practice in the areas most in need.
To address this dental care gap, some states have embraced the role of dental therapists. These professionals can offer up to 30 dental services, including placing temporary crowns, fabricating athletic mouthguards, and extracting primary teeth.
Minnesota provides a compelling example of successful dental therapy implementation. In 2009, the state created a dental therapy license. A 2020 study by the Center for Health Workforce Studies revealed that, since 2009, over 250,000 patients received care from dental therapists in Minnesota, and practices utilizing dental therapists experienced an increase in patient caseloads and gross revenue. This success demonstrates the potential for improving dental care accessibility and affordability through dental therapy.
Addressing dental care access disparities in Wisconsin requires innovative solutions, and dental therapy is one of them. We have learned from the success in Minnesota, the state will benefit from incorporating dental therapists into its healthcare system, offering increased provider numbers, lower costs, reduced wait times, and overall improved dental health outcomes. The passing of SB 689 shows an incredible promise to ensuring that all residents have access to essential dental healthcare services.