OLYMPIA – Tribal leaders and health advocates joined Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. John McCoy on Wednesday as Washington took a significant step toward expanding access to oral health care on tribal lands.

Inslee signed Senate Bill 5079, which lifts restrictions on tribes using federal funding to employ dental therapists — mid-level providers who can perform cleanings, place fillings and provide education on oral health.

Although midlevel providers have been popular in several other countries for decades, the idea is relatively new to the United States. Alaska authorized the first Dental Health Aide Therapists program for tribes more than a decade ago and its success has now spurred similar laws in five other states.

“I’m proud to see Native communities lead the way. This is an affordable model that can improve lives by offering routine access to oral health care in places where providers are scarce,” said McCoy, D-Tulalip, prime sponsor of the bill.

For the past decade, efforts to authorize mid-level providers were blocked in Washington and elsewhere by opposition from American Dental Association. In early 2016, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community grew tired of waiting and became the first tribe in the lower 48 to hire a dental therapist.

“I hope we can all finally agree that these providers can safely fill a gap in care for underserved communities,” McCoy said. “We are already seeing early success with the Swinomish and it will be exciting to watch it expand to tribes across the state.”

Watch video of the bill signing ceremony on the Senate Democratic Caucus Facebook page.