Health | National

Indian Country battles dental industry over dental health aides

Dental health aide therapists in Alaska have been successfully providing services to rural Native villages since 2006. Photo from Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium / Facebook

Tribes in the Pacific Northwest are leading the way for a new type of dental care in Indian Country.

The Swinomish Tribe of Washington is the first in the lower 48 to bring a dental health aide therapist to the reservation. In neighboring Oregon, the Coquille Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians are starting pilot programs to serve their communities.

The progress, though, has not come without a major battle. The dental industry has been fighting the use of therapists in Indian Country but had to concede in Alaska, where tribes have been successfully treating their people with therapists since 2004, Wendell Potter writes for The Huffington Post.

Despite the loss, Potter said the American Dental Association and other dental groups successfully lobbied for a provision in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act that allows dental aide therapists but only if they are permitted in the state where a tribe is based.

"We cannot understand how anyone can argue against what has been a model program in Alaska," Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby told Potter. "And we cannot understand why the ADA is putting up so many barriers in the lower 48."

Alaska, Oregon and Minnesota are the only states where dental aide therapists are allowed. They aren't permitted in Washington but Cladoosby doesn't believe his tribe's program can be questioned.

"It would be like the ADA challenging Canada for implementing a DHAT program," Cladoosby told Potter.

The fiscal year 2016 budget for the Indian Health Service includes $178.3 million for dental services. The 2017 budget request seeks $186.8 million, according to the justification document

Get the Story:
Wendell Potter: How a Little Known Native-American Tribe Is Leading the Way to Better Dental Care in America (The Huffington Post 2/16)
Oregon Approves Coos Bay Tribes to Integrate Mid-Level Native Dental Therapists (Indian Country Today 2/10)

Related Stories:
Swinomish Tribe hires first dental aide therapist in Washington (01/04)
Mark Trahant: Sovereignty in action with dental health programs (07/08)
Native Youth: Bring dental therapy providers to Indian Country (03/26)
Michael Bird: Dental care comes up short for New Mexico tribes (03/09)
Mobile dental clinic takes service to Navajo Nation communities (02/25)
NNHA: Dental care arrives too late for many in Indian Country (06/27)
Mark Trahant: Improving oral health through tribal sovereignty (03/11)