Legislature Should Approve Dental Therapists

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For the second legislative session in a row North Dakota lawmakers have been engaged in a debate over licensing dental therapists.

The therapists would be trained professionals who can perform a limited number of tasks some of which are currently only allowed to be performed by dentists. Things like tooth extractions, for instance.

The argument behind licensing therapists is that it would expand care for North Dakotans by making available more people who are capable of providing dental services.

Michael Hamilton from the Heartland Institute has written two op/ed’s for SAB in favor of the therapists (here and here). Dr. Brent Holman, a North Dakota dentist and executive director of the North Dakota Dental Association, has written for SAB in opposition to the proposal. He says it is an “unproven model” which would lower the quality of care in the state, particularly for lower income people.

If anything their opposition smacks of a sort of guild-like protectionism. Their objections on grounds like costs and training come off like a smoke screen behind which crouches a hostility to competing (at least in some dental service areas) with these upstart dental therapists.

The bill currently before the legislature is HB1256, which you can read here. Expectations are that it will get a vote in the state House this week, perhaps as early as today.

I hope lawmakers pass this legislation.

Dr. Holman calls this proposal an “unproven model,” but the model will never be proven unless someone tries it. Minnesota has instituted similar legislation and, per Hamilton’s post today, things seem to be going well. The Grand Forks Herald editorial yesterday also had a round up of facts from study into this area of dental service which is quite convincing.

There is no reason why North Dakota can’t also implement an innovative piece of policy, knowing full well that should problems arise tweaks or revisions can be made to the law in future legislative sessions.

It’s not as though lawmakers would be acting rashly. Again, this is the second legislative session at which this debate has occurred. There has been a lengthy and robust discussion about this issue, and the dentists have simply failed to make their case.

If anything their opposition smacks of a sort of guild-like protectionism. Their objections on grounds like costs and training come off like a smoke screen behind which crouches a hostility to competing (at least in some dental service areas) with these upstart dental therapists.

But the duty of the Legislature is not to protect entrenched interests but implement policy which best serves the people of our state.

Creating flexibility in how North Dakotans can purchase dental services is what best serves the people. And there is a real problem to fix. Shortages in dental services, particularly in our state’s rural areas, have been a chronic issue.

Dr. Holman and the dentists argue that licensing therapists won’t address this problem. Maybe they’re right, but what harm is there in trying something new?

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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