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Testimony Supporting of Senate Bill 784/Assembly Bill 945: Dental Therapy

Kids Forward aspires to make Wisconsin a place where every child thrives by advocating for effective, long-lasting solutions that break down barriers to success for children and families. Using research and a community-informed approach, Kids Forward works to help every kid, every family, and every community thrive.

Wisconsin ranks worst in the nation for children on Medicaid’s access to dental care. In 2016, less than one out of three children on Medicaid received any dental care. According to the Department of Health Services, nearly one in four preschoolers in Head Start programs had untreated tooth decay. A 2015 National Health and Examination Nutrition Survey found that Black and Latino children eight years and under were more likely to have cavities than white children.

Nearly 30% of low-income adults struggle with untreated tooth decay. One in three senior citizens in 2014 had at least six teeth removed because of tooth decay or gum disease. Over 25% of Wisconsinites live in areas that the federal government has designated as having a shortage of dentists. In 2014, less than 40% of Wisconsin dentists were enrolled in Medicaid, but far fewer of them served more than 25 Medicaid patients.

Numerous studies have shown the correlation between oral health and overall health. Kids can’t concentrate in school if they are in pain because of unmet dental needs, and lower-income children are less likely to get needed care. Communities of color are more likely to face structural and systemic barriers to accessing dental care.

Lack of access to dental care disproportionately impacts communities of color and reservations. According to the Department of Health Services, one in three Asian, Black, or Hispanic third-grade children had untreated tooth decay, compared to one in six White children. High school students face similar racial disparities in access. State data on dental access among ninth graders show that in 2015 almost 38% of non-Hispanic Black students did not see a dentist or dental hygienist, compared to 33% of Hispanic students and 14% of non-Hispanic white students. This disparity continues into adulthood.

Dental therapists are a step to addressing this significant racial equity issue and improving access to dental care, especially for low-income families and those living in areas with a shortage of dental providers. Dental therapists will not fix every issue and the legislature should continue to look at other options for increasing access, but this legislation represents an important step in the right direction.

Allowing dental therapists to perform preventative and routine restorative care, under general supervision of a dentists, is likely to result in more people being able to access dental care. Since dental therapists are paid significantly less than dentists, their lower labor costs could allow practices to serve more Medicaid patients.

Dental therapists are not a cure-all for the countless issues low-income kids and families have when it comes to accessing affordable, quality dental care, but similar models in other states have shown that they can help serve more people in under or unserved areas. A 2014 report released in Minnesota, showed that four out of five new patients seen by dental therapists received publicly funded health insurance and patients reported less travel and wait time to get care.

Kids Forward supports this legislation because it is a step in the right direction toward being able to provide dental care for every kid, every family, and every community. Thank you.