Too many children, especially in rural Wisconsin, are going without proper dental care.
Part of the problem is money. Dentists don’t get paid enough to work on Medicaid patients, so some refuse to accept or limit how many subsidized patients they will treat. According to the Wisconsin Dental Association, dentists here are reimbursed just 27 cents for every dollar of Medicaid work.
That’s why Gov. Tony Evers wants to include more state and federal money in the next state budget to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates. We support that, and the Legislature should, too.
The Democratic governor also wants to help fill Wisconsin’s estimated shortage of 200 dental providers by licensing mid-level “dental therapists.” Under the supervision of dentists, dental therapists would perform basic procedures such as fillings and extractions, freeing up dentists to do more advanced work.
The Wisconsin Dental Association is skeptical. State law now allows only dentists to perform such work.
But neighboring Minnesota has improved its dental care for the poor by licensing and training dental therapists. The position is similar to a physician assistant, who helps a physician with more routine medical care.
The conservative Badger Institute has touted dental therapists as a free-market solution that will benefit the poor and taxpayers. The think tank faults Wisconsin for being last in the nation at providing dental care to children on Medicaid.
Having a Democratic governor and conservative group pushing the same idea bodes well for bipartisan support in the Legislature. Many lawmakers from both parties also back higher reimbursement rates for dentists.
Evers wants to commit $16 million in state money and additional federal dollars to raise the rates government pays dentists to care for poor people. More than 500,000 children are eligible for dental care through Medicaid now, but many don’t receive it.
Evers led the state Department of Public Instruction before becoming governor. So he knows bad teeth are a big reason children miss school and fall behind in learning.
State Journal medical reporter David Wahlberg has documented the dentist shortage in rural Wisconsin. When small problems go untreated, they become big problems, leading to more expensive care in emergency rooms.
The Wisconsin Dental Association wants more input on the governor’s plan, which should be granted. But the debate shouldn’t devolve into a turf war. According to the Badger Institute, dentists in Minnesota now accept dental therapists as an important addition to their practices.
Evers is proposing incentives for low-income dental clinics, and for dentists who serve in rural areas. Those are good ideas, too.
The governor’s proposals, as outlined so far, deserve bipartisan support.