BISMARCK-For the past few years, an important conversation about dental care has been happening across North Dakota. The conversation has been sparked by the fact that thousands of people across our state don't have access to the dental care necessary to lead healthy lives. Some cite the high cost of dental services or not being able to find a dentist that will accept their insurance. Others can't find a dentist or clinic within a reasonable distance from their home, and some can't get there during regular office hours.

These problems didn't appear out of nowhere. In November 2014, the UND Center for Rural Health released a study that identified North Dakota's oral health needs and recommendations for solutions that could improve increase dental access across the state.

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The study recommended expanding the scope of dental hygienists to provide community-based preventive and restorative services. It also highlighted how Alaska and Minnesota now have midlevel dental practitioners called dental therapists, who are similar to physician assistants in the medical field.

Dental therapists in these states work under the supervision of a dentist and help extend routine dental care to people who currently don't have access, such as the young, the poor and the elderly.

But despite two years passing since the UND report was released, little has changed. Currently, nearly half of North Dakota counties have no dentists or just one. Two-thirds of North Dakota youngsters on Medicaid aren't getting the care they need. And one in three seniors in nursing homes need urgent care.

But there is a solution to these issues, which is supported by both conservatives and liberals and many different groups in North Dakota: letting dentists hire dental therapists.

Dental therapists have been shown to let dentists see more patients, decrease travel and appointment wait times, increase productivity, increase patient satisfaction and lower "no-shows." They are highly educated and trained professionals - and as with dental hygienists, they must be hired and supervised by dentists, who also can restrict their procedures.

Dental therapists' procedures include preventive and routine treatment (such as fillings) for children and adults. Dental therapy would also be a way for hygienists to do more.

In North Dakota, dental therapists could work in various settings. Private practice dentists, especially in rural areas, could hire them to expand care to more people. They could also work in community health centers or mobile programs, targeting kids in schools and seniors in nursing homes and assisted living centers.

With a dental therapist providing more routine care, a dentist would have more time available for more complex cases.

In 2014, a group of organizations came together to form North Dakotans for Dental Access to support this proven solution. Our coalition now includes:

▇ AARP North Dakota

▇ Alliance for Health Care Access (Grand Forks)

▇ Community Action Partnership of North Dakota

▇ Family Voices of North Dakota

▇ North Dakota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics

▇ North Dakota Dental Hygienists Association

▇ North Dakota Nurse Practitioners Association

▇ North Dakota Protection and Advocacy Project

▇ North Dakota Public Health Association

▇ North Dakota Women's Network

▇ Northland Health Centers

▇ Third Street Clinic (Grand Forks)

▇ Americans for Prosperity

▇ Americans for Tax Reform

We are all united to help fellow North Dakotans live better and healthier lives. As our state's legislative session continues, our coalition will keep on supporting legislation that will allow dentists to hire dental therapists to improve theoral health of our state.

Schmit is president of the North Dakota Dental Hygienists' Association.