Maine Dentist Shortage Hits Children, Rural Residents Hardest
A shortage of dentists in Maine is making it difficult for poor residents and those who live in rural areas to obtain dental care, the Portland Press Herald reports. In 1998, Maine had 581 practicing dentists. An aging population of dentists and the rising cost of dental school is slowing the supply of dentists both in Maine and nationwide, while an aging general population living in a good economy is causing people to seek dental care in greater numbers. Furthermore, while the number of dentists in the United States is projected to grow 8% within six years, no growth is predicted for Maine, which has no dental school and has difficulty bringing in graduates from other states.
Shortage Affects Medicaid Recipients
According to the Press Herald, about 40% of the state's dentists will not accept new Medicaid patients, most often because their practices are full, rather than because of low reimbursement rates. In one Maine county, only two dentists accept Medicaid patients, leaving such patients to travel across the state to get dental care, "if they get it at all," the Press Herald reports. In addition, only six full-time dentists in Maine specialize in children's dental care, leaving those providers "inundated" with patients, according to Maine Dental Association President Barry Saltz.
The state and the dental association are examining several ways to alleviate the effects of the shortage. Kevin Concannon, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said he wants the state to encourage dental hygienists to work in more "public-health settings," such as clinics, hospitals and schools, which would give children on Medicaid a greater chance of receiving dental care. Concannon also has told the state's Medicaid office to "reimburse hygienists directly, rather than having to go through a dentist's office," and said he would like private insurers to do the same. He also said he would like hospitals and the state government to make a greater effort "to hire full-time dentists to care for certain populations, such as low-income patients." In addition, during the last Legislative session, the Maine Dental Association had sponsored a bill to create a program that would provide up to $20,000 in annual loans for Maine students who attend dental school. The association also is trying to re-establish a "dental residency program," which had a 50% retention rate of residents who trained in Maine (Goad, Portland Press Herald, 12/18).