The massive free clinic staged once a year by the charitable arm of the Kansas Dental Association drew praise Thursday from members of the House Health and Human Services Committee.
Several commented after listening to KDA Executive Director Kevin Robertson give an overview of the Kansas Mission of Mercy project, which has provided free, often emergency care to more than 24,000 people since the first clinic in 2003.
Rep. Les Osterman, a Wichita Republican, urged committee members not familiar with Kansas Mission of Mercy to visit this year’s clinic, scheduled for Feb. 12-13 in Salina.
“It will simply amaze you and help you understand the job they are doing for the state,” said Osterman, who visited in 2013 when the clinic was offered near Wichita.
Turning to Robertson, Osterman said, “Thank you for all you’re doing for the state of Kansas.”
Over the years, Robertson said, the state’s dentists have provided approximately $13 million in free dental care at Kansas Mission of Mercy clinics, most of it to low-income adults.
Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, also was complimentary, calling Kansas Mission of Mercy “a wonderful program.”
But he said the fact that thousands of Kansans must stand in line once a year to get basic dental care is evidence of a systemic problem that can’t be solved by charitable programs.
“It’s using a Band-Aid to deal with a gash,” Ward said.
The state needs to take a comprehensive approach to increasing access to dental services in underserved areas, Ward said. Currently, residents in 95 of the state’s 105 counties lack adequate access to dental services.
“We have to look at the structural problem with dental care in Kansas and not get distracted by the Band-Aid and ignore the blood that’s coming out on all sides of the Band-Aid,” Ward said.
Robertson said KDA is partnering on initiatives aimed at easing the shortage. He said it was working with Oral Health Kansas, a nonprofit organization funded by several health foundations in the state, to increase the number of dentists who accept Medicaid patients.
In addition, he said, two new dentists participating in a loan forgiveness program funded by the Delta Dental Foundation are now practicing in underserved areas.
“And we have four more coming down the pike,” he said.
Finally, Robertson said there are ongoing discussions about increasing the number of slots reserved for Kansans at the dental school at the University of Missouri–Kansas City or establishing a similar arrangement with Creighton University in Nebraska. Kansas does not have a dental school.
But Robertson said KDA will continue to oppose a proposal that others believe should be a part of the solution: the licensing of specially trained hygienists as mid-level dental practitioners.
Though the available research doesn’t support his concern, Robertson insists that licensing mid-level practitioners — also known as dental therapists — to perform an expanded list of procedures such as pulling and filling teeth would endanger patients.
However, Robertson said there is evidence that dental therapists are no more likely than dentists to practice in underserved areas.
“In Minnesota when you look at the placement of the mid-levels, they’re all clustered around Minneapolis and St. Paul,” he said. “They aren’t getting out to the rural communities.”
The KDA succeeded in preventing a hearing on the dental therapist bill last year. And Ward, a supporter of the proposal, said it’s unclear whether Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican and the new chairman of the HHS committee, will allow one this year.
“I asked him point blank and he said, ‘I haven’t said no,’” Ward said.