Why Are Half of Wisconsin's Counties Considered Dental Deserts?

In rural areas, it can take more than a year to get an appointment.

Even before his DDS arrived in the mail, Jeff Matthews had more than 100 people clamoring to be his clinic-to-be’s first patients in Whitehall, a city of 1,600 halfway between La Crosse and Eau Claire. That was nearly 20 years ago, and not much has changed – rural Wisconsinites are still starving for dentists.

Sometimes it takes more than a year to get an appointment, a scarcity that’s led the federal government to designate more than half of Wisconsin’s counties as dental Health Professional Shortage Areas.

The state’s only dental school, at Marquette University, sprouts 90-100 new dentists yearly. That should be enough to cover all of Wisconsin’s teeth, but their distribution is uneven. Too many are setting up shop near cities, says William Lobb, the school’s dean.

At least 200 rural dentists are still needed to treat the statewide dearth, according to Gov. Tony Evers. More than $44 million was approved in the 2019-21 budget for expanding dental care, but none of it was directed specifically at rural areas.

Marquette officials, Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) and Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) had put together a plan that would’ve provided up to five dentistry students a year with a large scholarship ($20,000 per semester) in exchange for up to six years of working in an HPSA. Testin had hoped that those young doctors would establish roots and keep working in rural areas.

But despite the other dental commitments, Evers used one of his 78 budget vetoes to effectively cut the scholarship from the budget he approved in July. In his veto message, Evers wrote he objected to “limiting the funding to one health care practice area,” despite the area-specific shortage.

“To be honest,” Testin told MilMag, “I don’t know what the thought process was behind that.”

“Dental Deserts” appears in the September 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.



Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan