Analysis

Bill’s Passage Helps Washington State Tribal Communities Access Dental Care

Underserved populations will gain more dental therapists through federal funding

Dentist check up

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

On Feb. 9, the Washington state House of Representatives passed a bill to allow Native American tribes to receive federal funding needed to sustain tribal clinics that use a midlevel dental provider. Earlier in February, S.S.B. 5079 passed the Senate unanimously.

The Indian Health Service, the federal agency responsible for providing health services to federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native communities, proposed in June 2016 to expand the use of dental health aide therapists in tribal settings. This move would increase access to care among Native Americans across the country. These frontline providers, also known as dental therapists, offer high-quality, culturally competent care to tribal members who would otherwise have little or no access to oral health services. Dental therapists work under the supervision of dentists. When more complicated care is needed, they can refer patients to public health nurses, physicians, dentists, and other health professionals.

Native Americans have historically faced barriers to receiving routine restorative dental procedures to prevent long-term oral health issues. Many of these barriers will now be lessened because of dental therapists who can provide cost-efficient preventive dental care to communities on reservations.

State Senator Ann Rivers called this bill an “expansion of care … with the end result that our tribal populations will have ready access to excellent dental care.”

The bill now goes to Governor Jay Inslee, who is expected to sign it into law.

John Grant directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ dental campaign.