OHA Considers Pilot Program for Dental Therapists

The project would train and employ Native Americans to perform basic oral health in their own Coos Bay-area communities and use innovative practices to deliver dental care to populations with the highest disease rates.

The Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board is asking the Oregon Health Authority to approve a pilot project allowing dental therapists to treat members of two Coos Bay tribes -- the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua & Siuslaw Indians Dental Clinic and the Coquille Indian Tribe's Coquille Indian Tribal Community Health Center. Currently, dental therapists are not licensed in Oregon because of opposition from organized dentistry. A decision is expected in January.

Some dental associations have opposed creating a dental therapist job category but the Oregon Dental Association has been supporting of this pilot.

“ODA was supportive of the 2011 Pilot Project bill and eagerly anticipates the data that will be coming from all pilots. Our goal is to find innovative ways of providing access to care for those that have none, not just new avenues of care for those already have it, and truly improve the oral health of Oregonians as all dental disease is preventable, said Christina Swartz Bodamer, managing director of government affairs and communications for the Oregon Dental Association

“The pilot projects cannot use state money. Our pilot project is fully supported by private funding, resources from participating tribes and third-party billing,” said Pamela Johnson, oral health project specialist.

Funding is already in place from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua & Siuslaw Indians.

Students recruited from the tribes would go through a two-year training program in Alaska, returning to serve their community in a culturally appropriate manner for at least four years.

Before dental therapists began serving remote tribes in Alaska, teenagers frequently had no teeth left because of a lack of dental care, said Jane Koppelman, research director for the children’s dental campaign at Pew. Dentists might fly in once a year to deal with the most urgent cases.

Pew funds dental therapists to help solve “workforce mal-distribution,” Koppelman said, adding that the dental therapist model has improved oral health outcomes among the native population in Alaska for 10 years and statewide in Minnesota since 2009. The model also has been successful in New Zealand since 1921.

Dental therapists who earn less than dentists but can drill and fill teeth for restorative care such as fillings free up a dentist’s time for more complex care such as crowns and bridges. In Minnesota, 30 dental therapists currently work in public clinics, private practice and managed care organizations, making it possible for dentists to turn a profit while treating more Medicaid patients.

Jan can be reached at [email protected]

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