July 26, 1997 in City

Hygienists Get Teeth Cleaning Before Voters Group Brushes Off Concerns Over Move To Practice Independently Of Dentists

Hal Spencer Associated Press

Voters will decide in November if dental hygienists can clean teeth free of a dentist’s control, a move backers say would save patients money and foes argue would threaten patients’ health.

The hygienists’ Initiative 678 has enough valid signatures to go on the Nov. 4 ballot, Secretary of State Ralph Munro said Friday. The measure had 226,939 valid signatures, well above the required 179,248.

Munro’s office is still checking signatures on four other initiative petitions ranging from legalizing marijuana to requiring trigger locks on handguns. All are expected to pass muster and be certified for the ballot.

Cathy Allen, a Seattle political consultant running the hygienists’ campaign, said the campaign “will continue to spread the word that it is time to end the last great health care monopoly” - the dental industry’s control over the folks who clean teeth.

She said hygienist organizations around the country “are watching closely to see what happens in Washington,” and added that she is confident consumers will pass the measure in November.

The hygienists have tried for 18 years to win legislative passage of a proposal to free them to practice without dentists, a move they contend would reduce patient costs and give more people a chance to get preventive dental care.

But lawmakers, pushed by a strong dentist lobby, always wound up killing the proposal.

This time around, the hygienists spent a big chunk of their $200,000 in campaign contributions to pay people to gather signatures, a process that is legal in Washington. Backers said about a third of the signatures were gathered by volunteers.

The Washington State Dental Association opposes the initiative, saying it could lead to bad dentistry.

“Right now, patients receive a diagnosis and exam from a state-licensed dentist,” association spokesman Rick Larsen said. “Under Initiative 678, patients would not get that treatment, and therefore would not know what kind of care they actually need.”

Anita Munson, a dental hygienist from Bellingham, scoffed at the assertion.

Hygienists are “well-educated” to spot any “deviation from the norm” in a patient’s mouth, she said.

Allen said freeing hygienists to practice would open dental hygiene to competition, driving down the cost to consumers.

“There will simply be more choices in dental care,” she said.

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