Presque Isle, Maine -- Dental hygienist Christine Edgecomb takes care of a patient at St. Apollonia Dental Clinic. Credit: Norma Desjardins / The Star Herald

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It can’t be said enough: dental care is health care. For years, Maine has danced around the sensible step of extending state health insurance coverage so that more Maine people can access dental care. This could finally be the year that this needed policy change makes it across the finish line.

Both the Maine House and Senate have advanced a bill from Democratic Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau, which would add preventive, diagnostic and restorative dental services to MaineCare, the state program that provides free and reduced health insurance to low-income Mainers. Currently, Maine is one of a dozen states that only includes emergency dental coverage in public health plans. Maine should join the more than 30 other states that offer more extensive dental coverage.

“This is a landmark day for the people of Maine. The need for dental care impacts every single community in our state. Maine’s system has forced vulnerable people to use the emergency room when their teeth can’t be salvaged, which ends up costing Maine people their dignity and health. Ultimately, it has also cost our state economically, and that’s about to change,” Fecteau said in a statement Wednesday after the bill advanced unanimously in the House. “Today’s bipartisan vote shows that preventative dental care is a critical health issue in all parts of our state and we’re ready to fix this, extending preventative dental care to over 200,000 Mainers.”

This expansion would not only be the compassionate thing to do, it also would be the smart thing to do from an economic standpoint. Not only have studies repeatedly found that regular dental visits have long term health benefits for individuals, but providing preventative dental care can go a long way in reducing hospital admissions and lowering health care costs.

“Looking at the downstream benefits from this bill, I see the possibility of those investments that will occur in the short-term leading to significant dividends that will be achieved here in the state of Maine,” Rep. Sawin Millett, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “This is a sequential and methodological approach to implementing an ambitious undertaking. The current law is a last-resort nature and I think that is unfortunate for the human element and our societal commitment. I see this as a positive step. 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. I’m pleased to be a co-sponsor of this legislation.”

The input from dentists and dental patients on this bill have also been compelling.

“On rotation at a federally qualified health center in rural Maine, I did extractions almost daily for Mainers with and without Medicaid who were in pain and many of whom had multiple missing teeth due to dental disease,” Robyn Rousseau, a recent graduate of the University of New England College of Dental Medicine, said in legislative testimony earlier this spring. “This problem will continue to get worse if those who are the most in need cannot get routine care covered through their Medicaid benefits.”

“Teeth are important, they shouldn’t be considered luxury bones only fitting for those who can afford them,” Sass Linneken of Skowhegan told lawmakers earlier this spring, sharing an experience of losing dental coverage while being homeless years ago. “Please pass L.D. 996 to show people who are struggling in our that they matter to you and are every bit as deserving of dignity as anyone else.”

Encouragingly, it seems that lawmakers are getting the message, with this bill advancing in both houses. But we’ve been here before. In 2019, lawmakers voted to expand dental coverage to an estimated 70,000 Mainers, but that bill went unfunded in the final days of the Legislature. This must not happen again.

It’s not enough for lawmakers to sign off on the idea of expanding dental care. They need to finally make it a reality by funding it.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...