FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — All six of Michelle Ehlert’s children have Medicaid plans that should cover their dental care. But for years, she and her husband paid for dental care out-of-pocket — sometimes thousands of dollars a year.
They couldn’t find a dentist near their home in Wilkin County, Minnesota, who accepted Medicaid. When a mobile clinic that would treat Medicaid patients drove nearly 200 miles from Minneapolis to the rural county on Minnesota’s western border, appointments that fit her family’s schedule were “hit-or-miss,” she said.
That all changed when Ehlert’s family found a clinic in neighboring Otter Tail County run by Apple Tree Dental, where dental therapists, who prioritize treating Medicaid recipients, provide much of the clinic’s care.
Now, “we actually go to the dentist like we’re scheduled to,” Ehlert said. “It really is indescribable how much of a difference it’s made.”
Dental therapists are licensed providers who offer basic care traditionally provided by dentists, including fillings and simple tooth extractions. Over a dozen states have turned to them to increase access to oral health care, and federal advisers say at least eight more are considering doing the same. Like Minnesota, some states have deployed therapists specifically to benefit underserved populations, such as rural residents, Medicaid recipients, and Native American tribes.
Still, dental therapists are not universally supported or available to most rural Americans, despite inadequate access to oral health services i …