As state expands access to care, Maine’s dental school to train more students

Ben Martin, a  fourth-year dental student, center, works Friday with patient Michael McAteer at the University of New England’s dental school in Portland. Second-years Jack Edmiston, left, and Ethan Jordan watch the process. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The University of New England’s dental school – the only one in northern New England – is growing, and that may help meet Maine’s increasing need for dentists.

The College of Dental Medicine is renovating its facilities in Portland to handle larger class sizes and will increase enrollment by eight students starting in the fall of 2023. The school, which currently has 64 students, will add six students to its traditional four-year program, and two to a program that prepares foreign-trained dentists to seek licensing in the U.S. in a little more than two years.

The school has graduated 377 dentists since it was founded nine years ago, and about a quarter of them have ended up getting licensed to practice in Maine, school officials say. But even so, state health officials say Maine needs more practicing dentists, particularly in rural areas.

And demand for dental services is about to grow in Maine after the state expanded insurance coverage last week.

As of Friday, Maine has expanded the range of dental services covered by MaineCare, which is funded by the state and federal governments and provides free or low-cost health insurance to low-income Mainers. That expansion plan, approved by the Legislature last year, added  preventive care and other basic dental services to the items covered by the insurance to about 200,000 Maine adults. It also comes with better reimbursement rates for dentists, a move the state hopes will entice more dentists to set up practices in Maine.

The expanded services will cost about $45 million and will more than double the cost of the insurance coverage for dental care for adult Mainers on MaineCare.

Many dental procedures for children are already covered by MaineCare, but adults only had coverage for emergencies.

Adding more services to MaineCare’s adult coverage not only provides better health care to Mainers, the Mills administration said, it also means more business for dentists. MaineCare’s dental coverage had largely been limited to such emergencies as tooth extractions, and many of those were performed in emergency rooms, rather than dentists’ offices.

Now, procedures such as cleanings, fillings, root canals, dentures and other oral health services will be covered by the insurance and UNE is expecting that will help fuel more business for more dentists in the state.

“There’s definitely still a need (for more dentists) in Maine, and we are aware of the need,” Dr. Nici S. Kimmes, the interim dean of the dental school, said.

The head of the Maine Dental Association said she hoped that the cooperation of the state, UNE and dentists on expanding MaineCare coverage would lead to positive work on other issues that might otherwise inhibit the growth of dentistry practices in the state.

“We look forward to our continued collaboration to help address some of the logistical challenges patients and providers may experience in the coming weeks and months,” Dr. Norma Desjardins, president of the MDA, said. “Dental offices, like many health care offices and facilities across the state, continue to experience staffing shortages as a result of the pandemic.”

University of New England dental school interim dean Dr. Nicole Kimmes outside the Oral Health Center in Portland. A new MaineCare dental benefit will pay for cleanings, fillings, root canals, dentures and other oral health services.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

UNE already tries to fill that need for dental health care through about a dozen dental care clinics that students are assigned to in their fourth year. UNE also operates a clinic on its Portland campus where students treat patients under the supervision of licensed dentists.

The college said it treats around 100 patients a day in the Portland clinic and about a third are insured by MaineCare, so the range of treatment they can receive will grow under the new insurance guidelines and provide dental students with more experience in a wider array of procedures.

Kimmes said the Portland clinic and others are designed to serve areas and populations that are lacking in dentists and a large number of the patients treated there have MaineCare coverage, so the changes in what’s covered are important.

“We are part of the safety net and our students are part of improving that,” she said.

UNE officials said the clinics provide a way for more MaineCare-covered patients to get care and reduce wait times and can provide a place for donated or reduced-fee services to be offered for high-cost procedures.

The school said dental students also travel to schools, nursing homes, housing authority clinics and mobile clinics throughout the state, along with UNE’s dental hygiene clinic, to provide dental services to Mainers.


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