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Swinomish Again Pushing For State Approval Of Tribe's Use Of Dental Therapist

Mark Arehart
Denture molds at the Swinomish Dental Clinic. Many older members of the tribe have been fitted for artificial teeth because of years of poor dental care.

Staff from the dental clinic on the Swinomish Reservation will be in front of state lawmakers this week. This will be the sixth time the tribe is asking for the state’s approval to fund certain dental services. And tribal leaders say they may have a shot.

The Swinomish have had a dental health aide therapist working on the reservation for the last year. The mid-level provider has been performing services such as teeth cleaning, cavity filling and simple extractions. And Swinomish Programs Administrator John Stephens says the dental therapist’s presence has been great for tribal members.

“It’s improved access. It’s allowed people to come in quicker for more what we call routine care. It frees up our dentist who is trained to do more complex procedures,” Stephens said.

The tribe has been using about $250,000 of its own money to fund the dental therapist position. That’s because of language that was added in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act requiring state authorization to gain access to federal money. Typically that money to pay the mid-level provider would have come from Indian Health Services. Plus any care performed by the dental therapist isn’t eligible for Medicaid reimbursement.

But now, Stephens says the tribe is feeling confident, especially since the Washington State Dental Association has removed its opposition to the tribe’s use of the dental therapist.

“We think that’s huge. And we’re thankful that they’ve seen the light, understand our position and have said that they will not stand in our way as an association,” he said.

There’s a hearing on the measure scheduled at the Statehouse with the Senate Health Care Committee for Jan. 19 at 10 a.m.

Ariel first entered a public radio newsroom in 2004 while in school at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. It was love at first sight. After graduating from Bradley, she went on to earn a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Ariel has lived in Indiana, Ohio and Alaska reporting on everything from salmon spawning to policy issues concerning education. She's been a host, a manager and now rides shotgun with Kirsten Kendrick as the Morning Edition producer at KNKX.