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Dental school expands as some rural towns lack access to care

According to the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, 93 areas of Maine are classified as dental health professional shortage areas.

PORTLAND, Maine — Following MaineCare's expansion of dental care coverage, the University of New England will be graduating more dentists to meet the expected demand.

UNE announced the expansion of its annual dental class size from 64 to 72 Friday. 

The school announced the expansion in response to the Maine Dept. of Health & Human Services expanding MaineCare dental coverage, which is expected to impact more than 200,000 people.

Dr. Nicole Kimmes is the dental college’s interim dean and said they treat up to 120 patients each day.

"By having more students in our program, we will be able to contribute to the oral health workforce, which is in critical need in Maine," Kimmes said.

The school has attracted local talent like senior Jared Knighton of Freeport.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported, as of June 30, there are 93 areas of Maine it classifies as dental health professional shortage areas, encompassing 373,000 people. It estimates Maine needs 58 more dentists to meet that need. 

The state needs Knighton and his peers to want to stay after graduation.

"I grew up here in Maine, so, having a dental school in Maine is pretty special," Knighton said. "I'm pretty biased, I love Maine a lot, so, having a school here that can support the people that are having a hard time getting the dental care that they need — New England has a general shortage of dentists, so, to have a school that can provide additional help is really good."

Despite being in Portland, the students and their preceptors see the need firsthand.

Kimberly Soulard helps direct the facility and said some of the scores of patients who come seeking treatment travel from as far as a couple hours away. She said with MaineCare's expansion, she expects to see upwards of 150 patients a day.

When asked how to retain local talent in Maine's small towns, Soulard believes it'll take more than a mountain view.

RELATED: Gov. Mills announces expansion of MaineCare dental coverage

"Enticing the practitioners to go there, so then they can service the population," she said. "So, whether it be loan repayments or expanding the MaineCare services so then they can actually treat those patients comprehensively, that's very important."

When he graduates, Knighton said he'd like to stay in New England, maybe Maine, if the circumstances are right. UNE will keep producing dentists — more now after this expansion. 

Whether the graduates can be kept in Maine is yet to be seen.

RELATED: Federal judge says health care workers who sued Mills over COVID vaccine can't stay anonymous

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