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Wednesday, January 26th, 2022
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MADISON — It’s been a long road for state Sen. Mary Felzkowski’s bill that takes a free-market approach to bringing badly needed oral health care to underserved parts of the Badger State.

The Irma Republican first introduced the bill in 2017.

More than four years later, Senate Bill 181 that creates a state dental therapist license, is stalled in the Committee on Assembly Organization chaired by Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester).

The Senate passed the bill unanimously in April, after the Wisconsin Dental Association ended its “steadfast opposition” to it. So what’s the holdup?

“This isn’t because there’s not the votes,” Felzkowski said.

Vos’ office did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment.

Licensed dental therapists would be allowed to perform routine dental procedures, such as fluoride application, tooth extraction, and cavity repair, all under the supervision of a dentist. And dental therapists are able to offer care at a lower price as midlevel care providers, somewhere between a dental hygienist and a dentist.

At least a dozen states have passed laws creating a dental therapist license. Minnesota was a leader in the oral health care initiative. As of March, there were 113 practicing dental therapists and advanced dental therapists in the Gopher State, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. The dental health providers have made a big difference in the lives of low-income, uninsured and underserved patients, Minnesota dental experts have testified.

Supporters of the legislation say the pandemic has highlighted the need for oral health care professionals that can help bend the cost curve. As the Badger Institute recently reported, Wisconsin has one of the lowest rates of dental care in the nation. More than 90 percent of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have at least one geographical area designated as Dental Care Health Provider Shortage Areas by the federal government.

The Badger Institute report points to a a recent study from Cairo University which shows a correlation between proper dental hygiene, including regular dental visits, and a lower risk of serious COVID infection and complications.

An international study led by researchers at McGill University in Montreal and published in April in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology Researchers reported similar findings. According to the report, COVID patients with gum disease were:

  • 3.5 times more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit
  • 4.5 times more likely to need a ventilator, and
  • 8.8 times more likely to die than those without gum disease.

“Oral health is a critical component of overall health and well-being,” Greg Theis (DDS, MBA), vice president of Dental Services at Delta Dental of Wisconsin, told the Badger Institute. “Evidence suggests the correlation between those individuals with COVID-19 who have severe gum disease appeared at greater risk of more severe COVID-19.”

Children in families on Medicaid, rural residents, people with disabilities and veterans are most impacted by the oral health care gap. Some 20 percent of Wisconsin residents — more than 1.2 million people — live in an area experiencing a shortage of dental health professionals, the Badger Institute reports.

“This bill would mean access to people who otherwise have no access,” Felzkowski said.

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