Dental associations give up fight against dental aides

Posted: Friday, July 13, 2007

ANCHORAGE - After losing a court decision, two dental associations are giving up their fight against a program allowing dental aides to do procedures in rural Alaska.

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The American Dental Association and the Alaska Dental Society have decided to drop their lawsuit against dental therapists operating in the Bush, according to a settlement announced Wednesday.

Instead, the dentists say they will join forces with program managers to improve oral health care in rural Alaska, including contributing more than $500,000, according to a lawyer in the case.

The dental groups and four individual dentists sued program managers, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the state and the therapists last year, saying the aides are allowed to perform procedures that should only be done by licensed dentists.

State Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner ruled in favor of the program last month, finding it legal under federal law.

The therapists have agreed not to go after either professional organization for legal fees they are entitled to after winning the case, said Anchorage attorney Thomas Van Flein.

The main reason for giving up the fight is the time and money required to appeal the ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court.

"They're giving up reluctantly, but it's expensive . ... The legal issue is done for the Alaska Dental Society," Van Flein said.

A congressional board created the dental therapist program to address the scarcity of dentists in rural Alaska, a region with tooth decay rates among the nation's highest.

Dental therapists are licensed after two years of study and have access to dentists for consultation and advice. They are limited to examinations, fillings, cleaning and uncomplicated extractions.

The first eight therapists, trained in New Zealand because no American dental school would accept them, began working in villages in 2005.

The ADA also will work to get more dentists to rural Alaska by sponsoring more internships and residencies, Van Flein said. The ADS is already seeking government approval to create a nonprofit to send volunteer dentists to the Bush.

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