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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

Evers' Plan For Dental Care Is Jaw-Dropping For Some

Crafty Dame/Flickr

Dentists and community health care groups are debating a plan from Gov. Tony Evers to improve access to dental care in Wisconsin.

The governor is releasing some items that he says will be in his formal state budget proposal later this month. His plan announced Monday to boost access to dental care has several components, including combining $43 million in state and federal money to raise reimbursements for dentists who serve a high percentage of Medicaid recipients. The package would also expand the Seal-A-Smile program that offers preventive services to low-income children through the school system.  

Evers' plan is good news to the Wisconsin Primary Health Care Association, which  represents five community health centers in the Milwaukee area, and another dozen elsewhere in the state. The centers provide dental care to about 160,000 patients each year. The association's Lisa Olson says serving more disadvantaged dental patients would help Wisconsin catch up with other parts of the nation.

"We're appreciative the governor has recognized there are additional resource needs across the state to make sure everyone has equitable access,” Olson told WUWM.

Olson says she's also glad Evers wants to allow dental therapists in Wisconsin. Those are licensed professionals whose skills are between that of a dentist and a dental hygienist. Olson says Minnesota allows the therapists, including at a community health center in Duluth.

"They've seen a real improvement, in terms of the number of patients they can see, and the dental therapist works really well with the rest of the dental team on staff," Olson notes.

However, the Evers proposal may face significant opposition from the group that represents nearly 80 percent of Wisconsin's 35,000 licensed dentists. Dr. Patrick Tepe is a dentist in Verona, Wis., and president of the Wisconsin Dental Association. He says he's not against dental therapists, but says dentists do the most complex emergency work.

“When somebody calls on the phone that has a toothache, it's the dentist that's going to be the one that pulls that tooth or root canal, to get them out of pain or relieve the infection. A dental therapist is not going to be trained to do those things,'' Tepe explains.

Tepe says he also isn't sure if the Evers plan adequately addresses Medicaid reimbursement rates. "Most dentists are small business owners. They're small employers. We don't have the ability to cost shift, like a large medical system or large hospital can do."

Tepe says the Dental Association looks forward to working with the governor on improving access to dental care, but complains his group was surprised to learn of the proposals through the news media.

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