Naomi Petrie, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, is the first tribal dental therapist in Oregon. Photo: Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board

Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Tribes make history with dental therapist

The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians have made history by hiring a dental therapist.

The tribe is the first Indian nation in Oregon to take advantage of a dental therapist pilot program. And the job happens to held by one of its own -- citizen Naomi Petrie.

“I am very proud that we were the first in Oregon to recognize the importance of this program for both our community and all tribal people,” Chief Warren Brainard said in a press release on Wednesday.

Dental therapists have been in use in Alaska Native communities for more than a decade. They provide critical care and services in rural areas where dentists aren't able to make frequent or regular visits.

But efforts to bring the expand the program in the Lower 48 face hurdles. A provision in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was inserted at the behest of national dental organizations in order to limit therapists to states where they have been authorized under state law.

Tribes view the restriction as an infringement on their sovereignty and the federal-tribal relationship. They have had to repeatedly lobby state officials in hopes of bringing therapists to their communities, where states generally lack authority.

Pam Johnson / Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board on Vimeo: Meet Naomi Petrie, Oregon’s first DHAT!

In 2011, Oregon enacted a law that paved the way for dental pilot programs. But it took another five years before the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board gained approval for the Oregon Tribes Dental Health Aide Therapist Pilot Project

“The suffering from oral health issues in the AI/AN population is unacceptable. The rates of untreated tooth decay are four times higher nationally for native preschool- aged children compared to their non-native peers,” said Joe Finkbonner, the organization's executive director. “This pilot aims to turn the tide on that disparity, create a sustainable solution to the oral health crisis facing our communities and provide a roadmap for all of Oregon to follow and learn from our experiences.”

Petrie was the first from Oregon to graduate from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium DHAT Education Program. She spent two years in Alaska learning about preventive and routine dental care.

“Naomi will be a fantastic addition to the CTCLUSI oral healthcare team, just like dental therapy will be a fantastic addition to tribes across the nation struggling with poor oral health,” Stacy A. Bohlen, the executive director of the National Indian Health Board, said in a press release on Wednesday. "They fill gaps in the provider shortages, reduce long wait times, and provide culturally competent care.”

Dental health aide therapists in Alaska provide services to rural Native villages. Photo: Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians have a second student in training in Alaska. The Coquille Tribe and the Native American Rehabilitation Association, a non-profit, also have students in training.

Besides Alaska and Oregon, dental therapists have been authorized in Minnesota and Maine, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

Washington authorized dental therapists earlier this year, Mark Trahant reported. That was after the Swinomish Tribe hired its first therapist in 2016.

The American Dental Association, which had lobbied for the IHCIA provision, has indicated it won't challenge tribes who chose to take similar actions.

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