State lawmakers are considering a new way to help underserved populations get dental care.
A bill that passed the Senate 21-15 on Wednesday would authorize and license a new kind of mid-level dental professional called a "dental therapist."
The legislation sets out educational and training requirements that would have to be met before dental therapists could perform basic dental care, like fillings and simple teeth extractions, that are currently handled by dentists.
The bill also spells out the kind of agreement the dental therapist would need to have with a supervising dentist to be able to practice.
"We believe the legislation is one tool that potentially could help provide more access to those who are underserved currently," said Amy Zaagman, executive director of the Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health.
Zaagman says dental therapists will be able to practice only in dental shortage areas, in safety net settings, or in practices where at least half the dental therapists' patients meet various low income requirements.
"We have a significant access problem in the state," said Zaagman. "Less than ten percent of dentists in the state saw even one person with fee-for-service Medicaid last year."
The Michigan Dental Association strongly opposes the legislation because it does not believe dental therapists are the right way to solve the access problem.
The MDA says the number one access problem is low Medicaid reimbursement rates – not a shortage of dental professionals.
"If the reimbursement rate could be increased, the dentists are there to provide the care," said Bill Sullivan, vice president of government affairs for the MDA. "They're there to provide the care if they will at least not lose money every time they see a patient."
The bill has been referred to the House Health Policy Committee.