Guest opinion: Dental therapists can increase access to dental care

This concept would not be an experiment in Florida. It’s already proven to…

Guest opinion: Dental therapists can increase access to dental care 1

Floridians are currently facing a serious healthcare access crisis. Regular dental visits and proper dental hygiene are essential to the health and well-being of Floridians. Poor dental health profoundly impacts Florida students’ ability to learn and Florida workers’ ability to provide for their families. Despite the importance of dental health, one in four Floridians doesn’t have access to a provider. Fortunately, Florida lawmakers with their eyes on solving problems have a valuable policy reform available to them — enable dental therapy.

Senator Jeff Brandes has proposed a measure that would mean thousands of Floridians could get access to care — by enabling and bringing the proven concept of dental therapy to Florida. It’s past time for the Legislature make it happen.

The James Madison Institute and Florida Policy Institute don’t always agree on policy proposals. Dental therapy is different. The core of the challenge is getting patients desperately in need of oral care into a chair with a qualified professional that can address their needs. We agree that establishing a career track in Florida for qualified mid-level practitioners is a commonsense solution to solve Florida’s dental health crisis.   

It should not come as a big surprise that both our organizations back dental therapy. That’s because enabling dental therapy in Florida will increase access to essential dental care for all Floridians, and it will cut the overall costs of dental care, some of which is paid by taxpayers.

Florida has a severe shortage of dentists, and projections indicate it will worsen in the years to come. Currently, 5 million Floridians live in areas that have limited or no access to a dentist. Unfortunately, our seniors and children are among those who suffer the most.

One in five children in Florida suffer from treatable dental problems. With more than 23% of Florida’s third-grade children suffering from untreated tooth decay, Florida is ranked sixth in the nation for the highest percentage of third-grade children with unfilled cavities.

For seniors, many are missing multiple teeth because they haven’t received proper dental care in years. One in three senior citizens have lost six teeth from tooth decay or gum disease, and 14% have had all their teeth extracted.

Dental therapists will provide these groups with much needed care by increasing the state’s capacity — more providers equal more Floridians treated at a better cost for taxpayers.

Dental therapists are like physicians’ assistants to doctors. They perform simple procedures like filling a cavity or pulling a baby tooth. They provide basic services such as oral education and tips on how to prevent serious problems.

By law, dental therapists would undergo formal education and must pass the same state clinical licensing exams as dentists for procedures they are authorized to perform.

This concept would not be an experiment in Florida. It’s already proven to work in a dozen other states, some of which have had dental therapy for more than 15 years. While Florida is often the leader of the pack in innovative solutions, we’re behind the ball on this one.

Millions of Floridians are suffering. And taxpayers, in many cases, are paying obscene hospital bills for care that could have been prevented with proper oral care. In 2019, Florida hospitals billed well over half a billion dollars for preventable ER visits resulting from painful oral health issues. Florida taxpayers bear a substantial amount of this financial burden with Medicaid paying for nearly 40% of those visits.

This is a growing public health crisis that we can solve through simple policy solutions. Now is the time to bring dental therapy to Florida. Florida’s communities deserve safe and effective dental care — dental therapists can deliver it if Florida policymakers embrace it.


Sal Nuzzo is the vice president of policy at the James Madison Institute, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to the advancement of free markets and liberty. Sadaf Knight is the chief executive officer of the Florida Policy Institute,  an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing state policies and budgets that improve the economic mobility and quality of life for all Floridians.

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