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Washington Tribes leading the way to better oral health care

Dana Linnane

OLYMPIA, WA – Tribal nations in Washington are celebrating a new state law they crafted and championed to make it easier for them to address oral health care shortages in Indian Country.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed the “Act Relating to Dental Health Services in Tribal Settings” into law today. It authorizes federally certified or tribally licensed dental therapists to practice in Indian Country in Washington State. The bill was sponsored by Sen. John McCoy (Tulalip) with leadership from Tribal leaders as a key step in addressing high levels of tooth decay and dental care shortages.

“This is a tribal-based solution that will make a tremendous difference for Native people—especially children,” said Sen. McCoy.

Dental therapists are highly-trained, mid-level providers. They work under the supervision of a dentist and offer routine and preventive services, like dental exams; provide fillings; clean teeth; placing sealants; and perform simple tooth extractions. Washington’s new law will pave the way for Medicaid and other federal funding for dental therapists.

“We have one dentist to see more than 6,000 patients on the Colville Indian Reservation,” said Mel Tonasket, vice-chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes. “This law will help us hire a dental therapist to make sure our people are getting the oral health care they need.”

“Oral health care is a central pillar to a child’s overall health, so today we celebrate the action taken by Washington State to expand oral health care for children and their families in every tribal community,” said La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the Kellogg Foundation. “We appreciate the leadership of Governor Inslee, State Representative David Sawyer, Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby, State Senator John McCoy alongside countless others who have been steadfast in their efforts to advance racial equity while simultaneously creating new workforce opportunities.”

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium pioneered the introduction of dental therapists for the U.S. More than 10 years later, 45,000 Alaska Natives now have access to dental care and the dental health aide program has generated 76 full time jobs with a net economic effect of $9.7M, one-third of which is spent in rural Alaska.

Now, as a way to replicate the same dramatic oral healthcare improvements in Alaskan villages, i.e., reduced caries disease, healthier teeth and patient satisfaction with culturally competent care given by home-grown providers, tribes are blazing a trail to bring dental therapy to the lower 48 states as a high-quality, cost-effective strategy to reduce dental care shortages. Washington State is on the leading edge of this movement.

A year ago, under the leadership of its chairman, Brian Cladoosby, the sovereign Swinomish Indian Tribal Community hired Daniel B. Kennedy as the first dental therapist in Washington. In one year, they are increasing oral health care access and have reduced wait times from three months to less than three to four weeks. Cladoosby’s leadership is making better oral health care a real possibility for Native people across the nation. The Kellogg Foundation helped fund the Swinomish demonstration project through its support of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board.

While this new law addresses Indian Country in Washington, the momentum for dental therapy doesn’t stop there. Dental therapists are now practicing in Minnesota, in addition to Native American communities in Alaska and Washington. They’ll soon be able to practice in Maine and Vermont and on tribal communities in Oregon. Several other states, including Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota and Ohio are exploring the potential for dental therapists to significantly improve oral health care for many more children and communities.

For more information about dental therapy, please visit NPAIHB 

About the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create conditions for vulnerable children so they can realize their full potential in school, work and life.

The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Michigan, and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success. WKKF priority places in the U.S. are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans; and internationally, are in Mexico and Haiti. 

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