Dental Debate to Get Vote in Oregon

Oregon voters decide next month whether to allow dental technicians to expand their work with false teeth — a step that could take a bite out of patients' bills and has stoked a heated medical debate.

If passed, Measure 24 would allow the specialists who make dentures and are permitted to fit only full sets of false teeth into people's mouths to do the same with partial dentures.

Currently, only licensed dentists are permitted to fit partial dentures.

What voters decide may ultimately affect an estimated 50 million Americans — most of them senior citizens — who wear false teeth.

Advocates say Measure 24 would save patients money because denturists tend to charge less. But the Oregon Dental Association says the issue isn't about money, and that the proposal is bad medicine.

If Measure 24 passes, patients needing partial dentures will not be required to see a dentist for diagnosis. Dentists say that's dangerous for patients because denturists can't recognize problems like gum disease or oral cancer.

"We do not believe denturists have the educational background to treat these patients,'' said Eugene dentist Dr. Larry Over. "They have no training as to the biomechanics of teeth.''

Over says he has received 13 years of college training that includes dental school.

Denturists receive two years of training, including 1,000 hours of make dentures — both partial and full sets. They insist that experience counts.

"Since 1977, I've made 8,000 units,'' said Philip Dahl, president of the Oregon Denturist Association. "Are you going to tell me that someone fresh out of dentist school can compete with my experience?''

In 1978, Oregon became the first state to allow denturists to fit full dentures in the mouths of patients. Before the change, denturists never saw patients, instead working as lab technicians who made the false teeth from dentist-made molds.

Idaho, Maine and Arizona followed by deciding to allow denturists to fit partial dentures. Then in the 1990s, Washington and Montana took it a step further, allowing denturists to fit both full and partials.

Advocates for denturists say if the Oregon measure passes, that may give a boost to efforts in even more states to make it legal for people in the profession to fit false teeth.

A national effort is already underway. A bill presented in Congress this fall also would allow denturists in all 50 states to fit both full and partial sets of false teeth in patients' mouths.

The financial issue has been at the heart of the effort.

Studies by the Oregon Denturist Association have found dentists on average charge between 30 and 40 percent more than denturists. But the Oregon Dental Association denies that claim, citing a study by the Canadian Dental Association in Ontario that found no significant savings.