by Dr. Murray Feldstein

If you’ve ever had a throbbing toothache and a swollen jaw with fever and chills, you know what a relief it is to visit the dentist for antibiotics and immediate treatment.

But for too many Arizonans, help is only found across the Mexican border, or with an illegal provider, or in an ER which does not provide dental treatments, or not at all until the problem becomes life-threatening.

With so many Arizonans living in dental shortage areas, it should not come as a surprise that our citizens routinely cross the border to “Molar City” and other border areas to obtain dental care. Dentists in Mexico are inexpensive, and they aren’t subject to any Arizona regulation or oversight.

Even more troubling are the reports of other Arizonans seeking out the services of unlicensed dentists. Numerous newspaper articles around the country and here in Arizona explain how this industry operates in the shadows.
In response to the state’s dental crisis, Sen. Nancy Barto has introduced SB 1377, which would allow for mid-level dental practitioners, called Dental Therapists, to practice at the top of their medical education and training.

They work collaboratively with dentists and are trained to do a limited number of specific procedures.

Dental Therapists have practiced for nearly a century in countries around the world and are now licensed in five states. Their education and training conform to the vigorous standards established by Commission of Dental Accreditation (CODA), the same organization that sets qualifications for dentists. Yet despite the fact that they are fully trained to do so, Dental Therapists are prohibited by law from practicing in Arizona.

Some legislators and dentists deny there are shortages. Dental shortages have been documented repeatedly in federal and state government reports,  – as does the cottage dental industry across the border, and the underground activity here. Certainly, the personal testimonials of unmet need by so many of our citizens cannot be ignored any longer.

Misunderstanding about the training of Dental therapists have led to unnecessary and unfounded concerns about patient safety. No facts have been offered by those who oppose SB1377 challenging  scholarly articles attesting to the skill and safety of Dental Therapists.

The truth is that the status quo is endangering patients.  Continuing to do nothing only exacerbates the problem and allows the alternatives – which pose a larger threat to patient well-being – to fester and thrive. Allowing Dental Therapists to perform limited services that they are fully trained to perform would go a long way toward helping these desperate patients.

Arizonans need accessible and affordable options for dental care now. Fortunately, lawmakers have an opportunity to pursue meaningful reform with SB 1377.

Dr. Murray Feldstein is a Visiting Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.