“Dental therapy for Washingtonians is a reality because of the power built over 13 years by community, Tribal and state advocates to create accessible, equitable
means of dental care.”
— Emily Stewart


May 16, 2023

CONTACT: Jack Cardinal, (781) 960-5208, jcardinal@communitycatalyst.org

BOSTON, MA — Community Catalyst joins partners Statewide Poverty Action Network and Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board in celebrating the bipartisan passage of legislation allowing more communities in Washington state to access routine, community-centered dental care through dental therapists. Washington joins a growing number of states broadly adopting dental therapy, a community-led and informed solution to care that addresses oral health inequities in underserved areas while also providing pathways to economic advancement within those communities.

Statement from Emily Stewart, executive director of Community Catalyst:

“This is an incredible milestone in our collective efforts to advance health system innovations that are grounded in the wants and needs of community. For too long, profits have been prioritized over public health and nowhere has that been truer than in the $100 billion dental industry. Alongside our partners in Washington, we celebrate this hard-fought victory which will provide immediate pathways for communities to get equitable, person-centered dental care.

“Dental therapy for Washingtonians is a reality because of the power built over 13 years by community, Tribal and state advocates to create accessible, equitable means of dental care. It is a testament to the fact that communities, not policymakers, know best where the gaps are in the health care system and how best to address them.

“We won’t stop until everyone has what they need to be healthy, and our health system is shaped by and accountable to all people.”

Statement from Marcy Bowers, executive director of Statewide Poverty Action Network in Washington:

“We passed this bill because community members across Washington took ownership of this issue, shared their stories and urged their lawmakers to make oral health access a priority. Their efforts, paired with the tremendous leadership of the Tribes in our state, mean that people with low incomes and people of color in Washington will soon be able to access to dental care in their communities with providers from their communities. The partnerships we’ve built through this work illustrate how community power is critical to policy change, especially when going up against a well-resourced opponent.”

Statement from Nickolaus Lewis, chairman, Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board:

“Dental therapy was brought to this country by Alaska Native communities and we are proud to have been the path that brought it to Washington. Tribal communities in the state have been benefiting from dental therapists for years and it is long overdue that other communities have to access culturally-competent and community-informed care.” 

Additional Background:

Almost 70 million people in the U.S. live in areas with few, if any, dental providers. Even with insurance, finding dental care can be a particular challenge for families with Medicaid coverage as most dentists don’t accept it. Due to longstanding barriers to economic advancement, this disproportionately affects Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN), and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander people.

Dental therapists are an effective means of both building a representative oral health workforce and expanding access to dental care. They are licensed providers that work under the supervision of a dentist to provide routine dental care like exams and fillings.

Dental therapists work in a variety of settings, but they are specifically trained to extend routine care into chronic shortage areas. Working under the off-site supervision of a dentist and collaborating via telehealth, dental therapists can bring care to people where they are, whether that’s schools, nursing homes or rural communities. Because their employment cost is one-third to one-half the amount of a dentist, hiring dental therapists has proven to be a cost-effective way for a range of dental care settings to treat more low-income and uninsured patients with the same budget.

A diverse coalition of advocates including Tribal nations, community organizers and health care providers has been working to bring dental therapists to Washington since 2010. The state’s first dental therapist began work in 2016 when the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community hired one under their sovereign authority as a Tribal nation. The following year the Washington Legislature passed a bill authorizing dental therapists to practice in Tribal communities. Seven dental therapists currently work in Washington and a dental therapy education program opened last fall at Skagit Valley Community College in Mount Vernon, WA. The new law allows dental therapists to practice in federally qualified health centers and “look-a-likes” throughout the state, opening up access for more individuals who struggle to access dental care.

Community Catalyst, through its work and the work of the National Partnership for Dental Therapy has been supporting state, local and Tribal advocacy efforts on dental therapy for over a decade following the breakthrough work done by Tribal leaders in Alaska who brought this work to the U.S.

Oral health is essential to every person’s overall health and economic well-being. Access to dental care improves health outcomes for costly chronic conditions, reduces risk for adverse birth outcomes, and improves people’s job prospects.

At the federal level, Community Catalyst is urging the Biden administration to update EHBs, the health care services that most health plans across the country must cover, to include dental care, in addition to the organization’s federal priorities around dental therapy specifically. Doing so would help alleviate one of the main drivers of medical debt. Dental coverage, along with greater consumer protections, stronger enforcement of charity care regulations and increased scrutiny of medical credit cards would go a long way toward weakening a predatory debt system that jeopardizes the financial and mental well-being of millions of people.  


About Community Catalyst: 

Community Catalyst is a leading non-profit national health advocacy organization dedicated to advancing a movement for race equity and health justice. We partner with local, state and national advocates to leverage and build power so all people can influence decisions that affect their health. Health systems will not be accountable to people without a fully engaged and organized community voice. That’s why we work every day to ensure people’s interests are represented wherever important decisions about health and health care are made: in communities, state houses and on Capitol Hill. For more information, visit http://www.communitycatalyst.org. Follow us on Twitter @CommCatHealth.