Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington 2-2: Access to oral health should not be a luxury

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Five years ago, I said those words to packed room at a town hall forum coordinated by Senator Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders came out early as a strong advocate for ensuring equal access to oral health as it impacts all of our lives in so many ways. I spoke on the panel as a new mom that while pregnant had major challenges in accessing needed dental care while pregnant, unable to find a local dentist who would accept Vermont Medicaid nor accept payments on a sliding scale as the coverage was extremely minimal and not sufficient. I feared for my unborn child as the infected tooth that needed attention placed us both a great risk. I found a dentist in nearby North Adams, Massachusetts who ensured I got the care I urgently needed.

Following that testimony, legislative leaders in Vermont would move to adopt new policies that ensured no pregnant or post-partum woman in Vermont would have the same experience.

Still, each year, we see across the state on free dental health day, lines of Vermonters waiting for hours upon hours to be seen. Greater access is needed, there is no question about it.

Tens of thousands of Vermonters go without dental care every year. Like I did, they live in pain. They may be forced to miss work or school and they are at risk for serious infection. Lack of access to dental care affects Vermonters from all walks of life, but children and teens in Dr. Dynasaur, adults with Medicaid coverage, and seniors and others with lower incomes are most likely to go without the care they need.

I will no longer stand for this kind of inequity. That is why I will vote "yes" when SB.20 comes up for a vote in the Vermont House of Representatives today.

The bill will allow dental therapists to practice in Vermont. A dental therapist works with the dental care team in much the same way that a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant works with a medical team. In Vermont, dental therapists will be dental hygienists who receive advanced training to provide routine and preventive care, freeing up dentists to perform the more complex procedures that only they can perform.

Vermont's dental therapists will be trained at Vermont Technical College (Vermont Tech), which has more than a decade of experience providing high-quality training for dental hygienists. Vermont Tech's program will meet the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) standards for dental therapy education—CODA is the same body that accredits education programs for our nation's dentists and hygienists — assuring that Vermont Tech's dental therapy graduates will meet the highest national standards.

Dental therapy is such a powerful antidote to our state's dental care crisis because it puts providers in communities where people struggle to get the care they need. Once they graduate, dental therapists will be able to practice in a range of settings, such as community health centers, school-based health clinics, private practices, nursing homes, and mobile dental vans.

Dental therapy is also successful because it is a local solution to a local problem—it gives Vermont's hygienists an opportunity to take a step up on the career ladder while staying in their communities and practicing in places where dentists don't.

There is overwhelming evidence supporting dental therapy. Dental therapists have practiced in the U.S. for more than ten years, and around the world for nearly 100. The results have been astounding. In Minnesota, dental therapists have expanded access to high-quality dental care for patients with Medicaid, particularly children. In Alaska, dental therapists have brought dental care to nearly 45,000 people who could not get it before. Hiring a dental therapist has been such a success for one Minnesota private practice dentist that he has seen more than 200 new patients a month and is hiring another dentist.

In my time in the legislature, we have done some tremendous things. We have passed legislation ensuring that hard-working Vermonters don't have to go without pay when they are sick, can get access to affordable healthcare and more. Now, it is time to ensure that all of us can get the dental care we need so that not one more Vermonter has to go through what I went through.

Dental therapists are a sensible, proven way to address one of our state's most serious health care issues. We must pass SB 20.

— Kiah Morris is a Democratic member of the Vermont House of Representatives, representing Bennington-2-2 District.


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