Low-income communities of every race across this state face substantial financial and geographic barriers to dental care. If we’re smart, we’ll embrace proven new models of care.

Share story

THE year I started legislative efforts to bring basic dental-care services to native communities, more than 1,800 Indian children were born in Washington state.

That was 2006. Ten years later, the data show us that at least 75 percent of these children already will have experienced tooth decay and many more have experienced pain or had infections.

Generations of native children before have faced the same barriers to oral health care. For too many, their introduction to oral hygiene was waiting in line to have teeth pulled if a dentist happened to be visiting the reservation.

On Monday, that same piece of legislation will be in front of lawmakers in Olympia again. To be honest, I’ve lost count of the number of times I have tried to convince my colleagues that this is the right thing to do.

The idea is pretty simple — allow native communities to train and recruit dental therapists to help clear the backlog of an ongoing oral-health crisis. The research is alarming — one-quarter of Native Americans aged 35 to 44 years have fewer than 20 of their natural teeth.

State Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, is a Tulalip Tribes citizen and represents the 38th Legislative District, including Everett, Tulalip and part of Marysville.
State Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, is a Tulalip Tribes citizen and represents the 38th Legislative District, including Everett, Tulalip and part of Marysville.

Dentists complain that dental therapists aren’t the best solution or would increase risk to patients. They fail to recognize that opposing these efforts does nothing to decrease the current risks facing those with poor oral health. The risk of diabetes and heart disease is all too common among native communities.

The dentists also ignore the groundbreaking success of similar programs in other states. It’s been working for 11 years for indigenous communities in Alaska, where 45,000 people are seeing reliable providers for the first time in their lives.

The people involved — the dentists, lawmakers, and native communities — know this legislation has been defeated for a decade by those with the means to lobby lawmakers. Everyone has a right to lobby to protect their own interests, but not at the expense of thousands in need of essentials, such as a cleaning, a new toothbrush and a flossing lecture.

These are things that most of us complained about as kids but thanked our parents for later.

Indian country may not have the loudest voice in Olympia, but it still has basic needs.

This problem is by no means isolated to reservations. Low-income communities of every race across this state face substantial financial and geographic barriers to dental care. If we’re smart, our state will embrace these proven new models of care.

A decade after we first had the chance, there’s hope today for agreement on improving lives through better oral health.

We can’t afford to let another generation down.