Rural areas with no dentists would benefit from a new kind of provider.

Dental care is not a luxury. A simple toothache, untreated, can have a profound effect on a person’s health, limiting what he can eat or how much he can sleep.

The health of a child’s teeth affects his ability to concentrate in school and his self-esteem, potentially putting roadblocks on the path to success.

But Maine can’t deliver this essential service to its low-income population. More than half of children in the state had not visited a dentist in 2009, according to a report commissioned by the Legislature. The same year, there were 11,960 separate emergency room visit for dental problems, making it one of the most common reasons people seek emergency care.

And although two-thirds of the state’s population live in rural areas, only 13 percent of the state’s dentists practice in them. Four in 10 dentists are planning to retire in the next decade, which would make the problem worse.

A proposal to allow specially trained dental hygienists to provide some basic services like cleaning teeth and filling cavities is now before the Legislature. Lawmakers should support this measure as a way to get much needed care to people who currently have none.

The bill is modeled on successful programs in Minnesota and Alaska, and it is similar to rules governing other midlevel professionals, like nurse practitioners, who deliver health services without direct supervision by a doctor. The bill has been forcefully opposed by the state’s dentists and has left the Legislature sharply divided. But lawmakers should not lose sight of the principles at play here.

This would not create unfair competition for dentists; it would provide a low-cost alternative to the care that dentists are not providing. It could make preventative care available to people who need it and could head off future emergency room visits.

Maine lawmakers may be sharply divided on this issue, but the same can’t be said of Maine people, if a recent Pan Atlantic Consulting poll is accurate.

According to the survey 80 percent of Mainers support allowing dental hygienists to deliver some care – not to replace dentists but to go where dentists are not willing to go.

This bill won’t eliminate the dental care shortage — which is part of a larger issue of cost-driven rationing in the whole health care system. But it would help people who need help and legislators should pass it.

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