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David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children.

The way health care policy treats the human body doesn’t always make sense.

For many years, physical and mental well-being were treated differently, though they are impossible to separate. A person is not healthy if their high blood pressure is treated but their mental health is left to languish.

The law changed to catch up.

Maine law and the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, and later amendments in other federal statutes require that health insurance plans cover mental health and substance use disorder to the same level that they cover medical and surgical benefits. A 2020 report by the Maine Bureau of Insurance found that the laws are working.

Now, health care law needs to change again.

Right now, adult Mainers who receive their health care through Medicaid cannot access dental services unless there is an emergency. Routine treatments aren’t covered, allowing minor problems to grow into major, life-altering issues.

LD 996, An Act to Improve Dental Health Access for Maine Children and Adults with Low Incomes would change that. The bipartisan legislation would add comprehensive preventive, diagnostic and restorative dental services to Medicaid coverage. It’s estimated that about 70,000 Maine people would become eligible for care.

Sponsored by Democratic Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau and a bipartisan group of lawmakers spanning the ideological spectrum and the geography of the state, LD 996 recognizes health care shouldn’t stop at the lips.

“Dental care is health care. It touches on many aspects of our lives — affecting what we can eat, our employment, chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, prenatal health, mental health, and our ability to smile even with our families and loved ones. We know access to comprehensive dental care is vital for our health, it reduces emergency department use, it reduces costs for certain other health conditions, and it increases employability and productivity for workers,” Kathy Kilrain del Rio, director of campaigns and healthcare advocacy at Maine Equal Justice said Monday.

More than 74 people provided testimony during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Committee on Health and Human Services on Monday. The stories of people struggling with dental problems are real — and in many cases avoidable.

This bill has the chance to literally put a smile on people’s faces.

COVID-19 has disrupted a lot of things, and this expansion of necessary health care is just another example. Similar legislation to LD 996 passed out of committee last year with unanimous support. But the bill died when the Legislature was forced to adjourn due to the global pandemic.

This year, the committee and the full Legislature have another chance to enact this important reform.

Expanding access to dental care is the moral thing to do, and it’s the right approach to health care, but it also is a smart investment of state dollars that will save taxpayers money in the long run.

“Looking at the downstream benefits from this bill, I see the possibility of these investments that will occur in the short-term leading to significant dividends that will be achieved here in the state of Maine,” said Republican Rep. Sawin Millett, a co-sponsor of the bill. “This investment, on the human side of the equation as well as the Maine economic side, will provide benefits that are predictable and that will have a high cost-benefit ratio.”

According to Fecteau’s office, Maine is one of only 10 states that provides emergency-only dental treatment through Medicaid, which costs the state up to $17 million a year in avoidable emergency room care.

If you’ve ever suffered from a toothache or been afraid to bite into an apple, then you know how important access to quality dental care can be. This policy change can improve lives and help people to be healthier, happier and more successful.

Expanding access to dental care is common sense. The initiative enjoys broad, bipartisan support. It’s fiscally responsible, and it’s the right thing to do.

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David Farmer, Opinion columnist

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist....