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Law aims to improve tribal dental care

OLYMPIA – A new state law is aimed at expanding access to oral health care on tribal lands.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Feb. 22 signed Senate Bill 5079, which lifts restrictions on tribes using federal funding to employ dental therapists — mid-level providers who can perform cleanings, place fillings and provide education on oral health.

Tribal leaders and health advocates — including two from the Colville Business Council joined Inslee and bill sponsor Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, for the signing.

Council members Mel Tonasket and Rich Tonasket, both of the Omak District, attended the ceremony. Mel Tonasket had testified in favor of the bill during an earlier hearing.

Although mid-level providers have been popular in several other countries for decades, the idea is relatively new to the United States, said McCoy. Alaska authorized the first dental health aide therapists program for tribes more than a decade ago and its success has now spurred similar laws in five other states.

For the past decade, efforts to authorize mid-level providers were blocked in Washington and elsewhere by opposition from American Dental Association. In early 2016, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community grew tired of waiting and became the first tribe in the lower 48 states to hire a dental therapist.

The two Colville Business Council members were invited by Inslee, in part because of the Colvilles’ work to secure passage of the legislation for nearly a decade.

“This legislation is a creative and courageous example of how tribes and tribal organizations have come together to develop solutions to meet the needs of their communities,” Mel Tonasket said.

“This service is vital for the native communities,” he said. “The new law will increase the volume of available dental services in Indian Country and reduce the cost of providing dental care services to tribes.”

Under the legislation, federally recognized Indian tribes in Washington with on-reservation clinics will be authorized to train, employ or contract with dental health aide therapists.

Eighty percent of American Indian/Alaskan Native children on the Colville Indian Reservation between ages of 6 and 9 had a history of decay in their primary or permanent teeth according to a 2014 IHS Oral Health Survey of native elementary school children.

“Half of all AI/AN children on the Colville Indian Reservation had untreated decay. Only 5 percent of AI/AN children on the Colville reservation had at least one dental sealant on a permanent tooth,” Mel Tonasket testified earlier this session to both state House and Senate health committees.

“Congratulations to all Washington tribal leaders who continued to press for this legislation,” said Colville Business Council Chairman Michael Marchand. “Their work will truly make a positive difference for our tribal members, particularly children, who have had inadequate dental care. We appreciate their perseverance and teamwork and look forward to seeing better health outcomes for our people as a result.”

The bill provides state Medicaid funding to eligible tribal clinics for these critically-important services. It will take effect 90 days after the signing.

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