FILE - ME Maine dentist, dental care 7-14-2016

A dental care center is seen July 14, 2016, in Waterville, Maine.

(The Center Square) – Maine is one of a handful of states that doesn't provide preventive dental care for Medicaid recipients, but that could change under a proposal to expand coverage.

A bipartisan proposal, which was heard by the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee on Monday, would add preventive, diagnostic and restorative dental care to the services covered for MaineCare members 21 years of age and over.

Currently, the state's low-income Medicaid program only provides emergency dental services for adults.

"The way that MaineCare delivers oral health to adults is irrational, financially wasteful and promotes low-quality results," House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddedford, one of the bill's primary sponsors, said during a livestreamed briefing on the proposal. "It is at odds with the goals of the program, which should support the efforts of Maine people to live the most healthy and productive lives possible."

Fecteau said without access to routine dental care, many people develop serious and extremely painful dental conditions that could otherwise be avoided.

He recalled needing a root canal as a child, but having to deal with the excruciating pain because his family lacked dental insurance.

"It caused a great deal of stress for my family, so I can understand why Maine families are feeling this burden, Fecteau said.

The American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute said Fecteau's proposal would cost the state $2.7 million a year, according to the Portland Press-Herald.

His proposal is one of several to expand MaineCare dental benefits being considered by the health and human services committee.

Dan Morin, a spokesman for the Maine Medical Society, told the committee that access to quality dental care is as essential as having a family doctor.

"Most realize that without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to oral infections, such as tooth decay and gum disease but the health of a person’s mouth, teeth and gums can greatly affect their overall general health, leading to other diseases seemingly unrelated to oral hygiene," he said. "Poor dental care has been linked to a higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease, respiratory infections, diabetic complications, and even dementia."

Angela Westhoff, executive Director of the Maine Dental Association, said MaineCare is spending millions of dollars a year on emergency dental care that could have been avoided.

"Without the financial resources to pay for treatment, people often resort to emergency rooms seeking relief from oral pain and infection," she told the panel.

At least 33 states and the District of Columbia offer more comprehensive dental coverage in their state-run programs than Maine, according to the American Dental Association.

Dental disease is one of the top reasons for emergency room visits among MaineCare insured adults, according to a 2010 study by the University of Southern Maine.

The bill is similar to one that was advancing through the Legislature last year before the pandemic sidelined much of its work.