Early this year, I had my teeth pulled with the expectation that they would be replaced by dental implants. Unfortunately, the pandemic and hidden fees have delayed this procedure and made it too expensive for me to address. Now I hide my empty smile on Zoom calls and use my spare time to try to find care I can afford. The worst part is that I wasn’t shocked by this sudden barrier to oral health care — dental pain has followed me my entire life.
Growing up as a poor Black woman in Portland, it was very difficult to find a dentist. Most dentists were too expensive for my family to afford. Additionally, when I was young, the city only had two Black dentists, meaning that it was difficult to find one who could provide culturally appropriate care. Fortunately, my father was able to convince one of them to give our family discounts and create long-term payment plans that most dentists would never offer so that I could get serious work done.
But occasional charity is not enough to treat serious dental issues. I continued to suffer from tooth pain as I grew older, often at the expense of my personal and professional life. Even though I worked as a paralegal, I still needed to rely on Medicaid, which did not cover the intensive dental procedures I required.
I remember skipping hard food like nachos at company events, because they would cause too much pain. Like many people with tooth pain and limited access to care, I often relied on alcohol to numb the pain in lieu of medical care. Now I work as chair of the NAACP of Clark County’s health committee and, sadly, I see my story repeated over and over again in Clark County’s Black community.
Statewide access to care
This year the Washington Legislature is considering a bill that could transform access to dental care for communities of color in the Pacific Northwest by allowing dental therapists to practice statewide. Dental therapists are a new category of dental provider created to train people from areas with limited access to dental care so they can provide care to their communities.
Currently dental therapists are allowed to practice only in tribal settings in our state. They were introduced here in 2017 when lawmakers passed Senate Bill 5079 to create a path toward better access to health care in tribal communities. And they work – safely and effectively bringing care to more people.
The high cost of dental school puts it out of reach for many low-income students and students of color. Dental therapy helps break down barriers to health care by educating and employing people from communities where health care access is scarce, creating community-based providers who expand culturally and linguistically appropriate care where it’s most needed.
Also, because dental therapists are from the communities they serve, they are better prepared to provide culturally appropriate care and have been proven to improve health outcomes.
Dental therapy would increase the number of dental providers who are from communities like mine as well as the number of providers who would serve my community.
Having access to care from people that understood my history and community would have changed my life. I can only hope that the Legislature does the right thing and makes affordable, accessible care a reality for people of color across Washington.
Benita Presley is chair of the NAACP Vancouver’s Health Committee.