OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday signed a bill that seeks to improve oral health on reservations in Washington state.
The measure was the first bill the governor has signed this legislative session. It allows tribes to use federal funding for dental therapists, who provide preventative care and procedures such as cleanings, fillings and oral exams.
“We want our kids to have good dental health,” Inslee said at the bill signing ceremony. “Now, finally we are going to have good, efficient dental care in the state of Washington for our tribal members, we know that has not been the case for so many.”
Senate Bill 5079, sponsored by Democratic Sen. John McCoy of Tulalip, passed the House on an 80-18 vote and received unanimous approval in the Senate.
Inslee said he first became aware of the need for this bill in 1993 when he was a congressman in Yakima.
“I remember seeing dozens of kids with these horrific caries trying to get emergency health care, we want to get ahead of caries, we want our kids to have good dental health,” Inslee said. “We understand that dental health is as important as physical health.”
In front of a large crowd of people who came to Olympia from state reservations, Inslee said he expects the bill will create less emergency visits, less extractions and infections and ultimately improve tribes’ oral health.
“People are going to have earlier and more frequent cleaning of their teeth, better x-rays, and easy to demand for affordable care on tribal reservations,” Inslee said
Dental therapists are technically not legal in the state, but as sovereign nations, tribes can allow them to practice on reservations. However, under federal law, states must approve dental therapists for tribes to pay for their services through Medicaid.
“This means we are going to unlock the door to dollars for health care from the federal government,” Inslee said. “I love the thought that we are going to bring federal dollars into our state to provide tribal health care.”
The Washington State Dental Association has been known to oppose the use of dental therapists but didn’t object to the bill this year after tribes put up a fight for several years to pass this legislation.
“We know these programs have worked in other states,” Inslee said. “They’ve made high quality dental care available… It’s great that our state is now building on the success in other states.”
Other states that have already permitted dental therapists include Vermont, Maine and Minnesota, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alaska has Dental Health Aide Therapists that practice on tribal lands, but are not authorized in its state statute.
The measure will become effective this summer on all tribal lands.