The rate of tooth decay among Native Americans is higher than any other population. And now, tribes across Washington state will be able to use federal money to hire dental health aide therapists.
A loophole in the updated Indian Health Services Act prevented tribes from using the mid-level providers without first getting state approval. Now they have it. And this change has been in the works for some time.
It took six years to get the go-ahead from state lawmakers and last week, Governor Jay Inslee made it official by signing the measure into law. Tribes across the state, including Colville and the Swinomish have been instrumental in getting the measure approved.
“I’m trying to bottle my enthusiasm right now," Swinomish tribal chairman Brian Cladoosby said, speaking at the bill-signing ceremony at the statehouse.
His tribe hired a dental therapist a little over a year ago to work at the dental clinic on the reservation just outside of La Conner. Cladoosby says this new law isn’t just about providing more access for badly-needed dental care on reservations, it also means jobs.
“Lord willing, we’ll have some great news here in the future about how we want to implement our training program right here in Washington," he said. "So our therapists don’t have to go to Alaska. They can get that training right here. So that’s our next step.”
“If Swinomish, or any other place can develop a training program in the state, that would be awesome,” Colville Confederated Tribes Vice-Chairman Mel Tonasket said. He says he and other leaders are starting to figure out who among their members could get trained to serve as a dental therapist.
“It’s a worthwhile job and one that’s always needed. We think it’ll expand and grow.”
Tonasket says training the tribe’s own members will mean a built-in workforce. It also means a focus on preventive care, rather than relying on visiting dentists who can only spend a few days at a time on the reservation.