Toothless at the Legislature, Washington dental hygienists said Tuesday they now have the bite to take their independence fight straight to voters.
A crowd of backers, mostly hygienists, lugged into the secretary of state’s office what backers said was about 250,000 signatures to put Initiative 678 on the November ballot.
The measure, which would allow hygienists to inspect and clean teeth without working under dentists, needs 179,248 signatures of registered voters to qualify.
“We have more than enough cushion” to qualify, said Carroll Twiss, initiative campaign manager.
Secretary of State Ralph Munro’s staff in coming weeks will process the boxloads of signatures to determine whether Twiss is right.
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, called that assertion inaccurate.
Hygienists are “well educated” to spot any “deviation from the norm” in a patient’s mouth, she said.
Hygienists already are plying their trade in state institutions, such as nursing homes and jails, free of dentist oversight, she said. The record shows that there have been no ill effects, she added.
Earlier, Munson said, “If we were allowed to open our own clinics, we could reduce the price paid for cleanings and fluoride treatments by as much as 50 percent.”
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