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The Impact – Dental Workforce Legislation

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

In response to reported labor shortages, the state legislature took aim at regulations such as licensing requirements that impact the supply of workers for in-demand jobs. One field in particular got a lot of attention this year, dentistry.

A new type of oral health care provider will be working in an expanded number of health care settings because of a bill that passed in the 2023 session.

From filling cavities to extracting teeth, dental therapists are authorized to perform a broader range of procedures than dental hygienists, but not as many procedures as dentists. Until now dental therapists have only been allowed to practice in tribal health care facilities. House Bill 1678, sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D- Spokane), codifies the profession of dental therapy, its scope of practice and licensure requirements, and authorizes dental therapists to practice in federally qualified health centers as well as tribal health care facilities.

 Proponents of the field of dental therapy see it as a way to address lack of access to care for patients in underserved areas or those on Medicaid.

Lawmakers also approved bills to make it easier for dental hygienists from other states to come to Washington. The Washington State Dental Association, representing dentists, says there are not enough hygienists available to fill the open positions at offices around the state. They argue this restricts the number of appointments dentists can schedule and contributes to longer delays for patients needing care. 

House Bill 1466, also sponsored by Riccelli, extends the licensing period for hygienists moving to the state from 18 months to five years. It also removes the requirement that an applicant be actively practicing in another state or province. Proponents of the bill say Washington has the most rigorous certification requirements for dental hygienists. By extending the window of time for hygienists licensed in other states to become fully licensed in Washington, bill supporters hope to encourage more hygienists to move here. 

The legislature also approved Washington’s participation in the Dentist and Dental Hygienist Compact which will allow dentists and hygienists licensed in one participating state to practice in all of the other compact states without obtaining a separate license for each one. The compact legislation, House Bill 1576, was sponsored by Representative Michele Caldier (R-Gig Harbor), a licensed dentist. The compact won’t take effect until seven states have signed on. Iowa, Washington, and Tennessee are the first three states to enact it, but the legislation has been introduced in multiple other states.

Watch our interviews with Bracken Killpack, Executive Director of the Washington State Dental Association and Marcy Bowers, Executive Director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network.