Judge gives OK to dental therapists in rural Alaska

The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A judge rejected an effort by the American Dental Association to stop a program allowing dental therapists to provide services in areas of rural Alaska where dental decay is prevalent.

Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner on Wednesday ruled that dental therapists do not need to be licensed by the state. Rindner said that forcing the therapists to get state licenses would frustrate federal goals to reduce tooth decay in rural Alaska.

His ruling means the therapists, who undergo two years of special training and work under a licensed dentist often not on site, can continue operating in villages, said Valerie Davidson, of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

"The fact our local solution to a local problem is going to make a difference in oral health care delivery for Alaska Natives is really exciting," she said. "It's great to have validation from the court."

The Alaska Dental Society and others tried to stop the program in which at least eight dental therapists are currently doing fillings, simple tooth extractions and other procedures in villages where few dentists operate. The therapists do not perform complex procedures, such as root canals, Davidson said.

The dental organizations, plus four individual dentists, sued asserting the therapists require a state dental license.

Attorneys for the tribal health consortium argued the therapists were certified under federal law and didn't need a state license.

The immediate past president of the Alaska Dental Society, David Eichler, said his group is disappointed.

"We knew it was an uphill battle to begin with but it was our intention to bring the same high standards of health care to Natives as everyone else in the U.S. has," he said.

Students spend one year in classroom studies at a clinic in Anchorage before taking on clinical work in a rural community. They are required to spend another three months training with a dentist before earning certification as a dental therapist.

The dental therapists working in Alaska were trained in New Zealand.