A bill allowing dental therapists to practice in the U.S. Virgin Islands has cleared two committees in the territory’s unicameral Legislature. Enactment would help provide more residents with access to high-quality and cost-effective dental care.
The bill, introduced by Senator Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly (D), chair of the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services, would authorize dental therapy, which would allow certain routine services to be administered by trained providers other than dentists. She also introduced a measure requiring the appointment of a dental therapist to the Virgin Islands dental board. Both received initial committee approvals in August.
At an Aug. 15 committee hearing, Bart Eisenbarth, D.D.S., former dental director of the only public dental clinic in St. Croix, spoke of as many as 4,000 people waiting for services at Frederiksted Health Care Inc. He stressed that this patient population faces severely high rates of tooth decay and cavities that require attention. Eisenbarth added that an oral health needs assessment conducted by the clinic this spring found that as currently staffed, the facility can meet only about a 10th of the need on the territory’s largest island.
Under the legislation, dental therapists would be required to graduate from an accredited dental therapy training institution and pass a clinical examination approved by the territory government. The therapists would be able to prepare and provide fillings, conduct oral evaluations, develop treatment plans, extract primary teeth and diseased or loose permanent teeth, and administer nitrous oxide.
Those who complete 500 hours of direct supervision under a dentist would be allowed to practice under general supervision if allowed by the supervising dentist. All dental therapists would work under collaborative agreements, set by supervising dentists, that articulate allowable procedures, locations, and supervisory levels.
In addition to the health committee, members of the Committee on Finance also have approved the legislation. Both bills go next to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary.
John Grant directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ dental campaign.