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Guest Opinion: Time To Increase Access To Basic Dental Care In Oregon

With a shortage of dentists in Oregon, the Legislature should pass a bill allowing the state to license dental therapists.
September 28, 2020

Every Oregonian deserves access to basic dental care.

But right now in Oregon, that isn’t even close to happening. And that was true even before COVID-19.

More than 1 million adults and children in the state live in areas with a shortage of dentists. And 24 primary care service areas in rural Oregon — areas sometimes covering hundreds of square miles — have no full-time dentist at all. We are supporting a bill during the 2021 legislative session that can help change those numbers, and that can give Oregonians access to the basic dental care they deserve. 

We recognize that Oregonians who are affected by significant barriers to routine and preventive oral health care are also most likely to be hurt by COVID-19 and its economic impacts. And given the growing state budget crisis, we believe the Legislature should focus this session on policy bills that offer long-term health care solutions with little or no financial cost to the state. That's true of our bill. 

Our bill would allow Oregon to license dental therapists — primary oral health care providers akin to physician assistants in medicine. Dental therapists have the special training to perform the basics of dental care: exams, fillings, simple extractions of bad teeth – always under the supervision of a dentist. In countries and U.S. states where dental therapists work, many more people have access to dental care — simple care that has profound effects on their daily lives and prevents larger dental and health problems later.

Over the past several months, as the coronavirus pandemic has limited access to dental care even more, a legislative workgroup has been gathering — in online meetings— to explore the best way to move our dental therapy proposal forward.

Sen. Monnes Anderson introduced dental therapy legislation during the 2020 legislative session. But during the very short session, it was clear more work needed to be done to answer questions about the legislation and work out details.  A dental therapy legislative workgroup that included both of us, along with representatives from dental care, health care, community-based organizations and Tribes met over the summer to do just that.  The workgroup included supporters and opponents of the 2020 legislation and made suggestions to strengthen the bill we think can win broad support during the 2021 Oregon legislative session.

We want to offer our sincere appreciation to every work group member, and to experts who offered invaluable information to help us improve the proposal that we will be moving forward in the 2021 session.  

We look forward to more discussions with our constituents and colleagues about our proposal during Legislative Days last week and through the upcoming 2021 session. And we believe this strongly: Oregon will soon have a better model of delivering first-rate, high-quality dental care to many more Oregonians who need and deserve that care.

Sen. Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, is retiring from the Oregon Legislature after serving for 16 years in the Oregon Senate and four years in the Oregon House of Representatives. Rep.  Sanchez, D-Portland, was elected to the Legislature in 2016 and represents North and Northeast Portland.