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Dental therapist will treat underinsured in Wadena

Dental therapist Jason Allred will soon be setting up shop inside Woodland Dental in Wadena. However, he's no ordinary dentist. In fact, there are only about 20 people like him in the entire country, Allred said.

That's because the idea of a "dental therapist" is completely new, Allred added. Unlike anything else in the U.S., the program was developed at the University of Minnesota's School of Dentistry with a simple objective: provide dental care to the people in rural Minnesota who rely on medical assistance to help pay for it and who otherwise would fall through the cracks of the health care system, Allred said.

"(With) people on state insurance or medical assistance, the reimbursement rates for dental care are extremely low, so a lot of dentists don't accept those (kinds of) insurance, so people don't have any place to go to be seen," he said.

Dr. Karl Self, director of the Division of Dental Therapy at the U of M, said that the beginnings of dental therapy came about in 2008 when the Minnesota state Legislature directed the university to create a dental therapy program by 2009.

"One of the concepts for this program of dental therapy is the fact that if we could educate a therapist in less time and for less money than it costs to educate a dentist ... we may be able to improve access for these underserved populations," Self said.

Self added that although dental therapists receive a lesser amount of training than conventional dentists, they take classes alongside regular dentists and are held to the same standard of care.

Dr. Ryan Anderson of Woodland Dental said his office has to turn away several people on medical assistance each week.

"It can be up to two, three people a day," Anderson said.

To help alleviate the problem in Wadena, Anderson will host Allred in his clinic for six months, starting in February, Allred said. During that first six months, Allred will work a single chair, capable of treating about eight people a day. After that period, Allred will open a four-chair clinic in the back of Woodland Dental under Anderson's supervision.

"The area is in need of providers for dental work, so this dental therapist position is a perfect fit for our practice," Anderson said.

Allred said the need for dental care is so great that Anderson has already compiled a schedule of patients for Allred to treat.

Allred also said his range of care is more limited than that of a conventional dentist, but he can provide exams, x-rays, fillings, some crowns and almost all aspects of child dental care, for those on medical assistance. However, extractions of teeth, dentures and root canals for adults would have to be referred to someone else, Allred said.

Allred originally worked 10 years as the owner of an auto parts business, but after his father passed away following a fight with brain cancer, his priorities changed.

"I was able to find out about the things that were important to him in life, and it turned out it wasn't money or achievements; it was the people around him," Allred said. "I just wanted to do something more beneficial than selling auto parts."

Allred eventually found that beneficial role in the new dental therapist program at the U of M. After one year of prerequisite coursework and 27 months of dental training, Allred graduated two weeks ago, and he is excited to start work in Wadena.

"I enjoy it immensely," he said.