A future with healthy smiles for everyone

Personal reflections on the importance of equity in oral health.

By Matt Morton

As National Native American Heritage Month begins and I near the end of my first year on the Arcora Foundation Board of Trustees, I find myself contemplating the journey that led me to serve in this role. Being a Native American on a diverse board has provided a unique vantage point, allowing me to learn about the experiences of other communities and advocate for vital issues that resonate deeply with both my heritage and my passion for promoting equitable access to oral health care.

Unfluoridated water and an ‘inheritance of bad teeth’.

My decision to join Arcora Foundation stems from personal experience. Growing up in unincorporated Thurston County—on the same plot of land my grandmother was born on—I had no idea my life was different from any of my friends in Olympia. We attended the same schools and played on the same teams. My source of water, though, was different. If you’re not familiar with Olympia, let me tell you a secret: “It’s the Water.” Delicious, pure underground artesian wells provided my family with water for generations. It only had one problem: It didn’t have fluoride. With no systemic prevention, caries—the disease that causes tooth decay—were a regular occurrence growing up, and inheriting bad teeth became an acceptable explanation for the common occurrence of dental pain and fillings.

Many years later, as the executive director of the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, I witnessed firsthand the disparity a community experiences when access to proper dental care is limited, including the far-reaching implications of diminished overall health. In 2014, I decided to do something about it. NAYA joined an effort to bring public water fluoridation to the City of Portland. While our efforts did not succeed, I became a member of a special task force that brought together fluoride advocates and opponents in the name of children’s dental health. Major water fluoridation proponents—Northwest Health Foundation and Kaiser Permanente—along with the largest in-state donor for the anti-water-fluoridation campaign funded and led the effort. The task force studied the most workable solutions for improving dental health outcomes for children in Multnomah County—where Portland is—and we made both policy and practice recommendations that are still in effect today. By joining the Arcora Foundation Board of Trustees, I’m continuing to address the disparities experienced by my community and so many others. It was Arcora’s inclusive approach to problem-solving that convinced me that my involvement could bring a valuable perspective to the table.

Arcora: a mission beyond dental services.

At Arcora, our mission extends beyond providing dental services; it encompasses a comprehensive, systems-level approach to promote oral health equity. By fostering partnerships with communities and the nonprofits that serve them, health care providers, and policymakers, we seek to implement sustainable initiatives that target populations who sit closest to the disparities. Our focus lies in bridging the gap between accessible care and those who need it the most. We work to ensure everyone has the opportunity for a healthy smile.

Being part of Arcora’s work has not only allowed me to contribute to a larger cause but has also served as a reminder of the transformative power of advocacy. Witnessing the positive impact of our programs on communities that have historically been neglected or underserved has reaffirmed my commitment. It’s not just about dental health; it’s about empowering individuals, fostering dignity, instilling a sense of well-being and community self-determination.

I do this work because of my community and my ancestors. It’s about ensuring that future generations won’t have to endure the same challenges; it’s about paving the way for a more inclusive and equitable future. It’s a future where access to health care, including oral health services, is not a privilege but a fundamental human right for everyone. This vision continues to drive me. Together, we can build a future where every smile reflects not just good oral health but of a community thriving in equity and compassion.

Matt Morton is an Arcora Foundation trustee and the president of the Community Foundation of Southwest Washington.

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at info@arcorafoundation.org.

Celebrate our Latinx staff for National Hispanic Heritage Month

3 perspectives on the importance of equity-focused work.

At Arcora Foundation, partnerships power our work. We collaborate with people across Washington state to further our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity.

Our staff are essential to build and maintain our partnerships. Their dedication and experience help to center community voices in our work to achieve good oral and overall health for people who face barriers to dental care—especially in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

For National Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate our Latinx staff. Matt, Melissa, and Konstanza share about their backgrounds and lived experiences, which help to better serve Latinx and other people in our state so that everyone can reach their full health potential.

Matt Gonzalez, Associate Program OfficerMatt Gonzalez

Matt identifies as Latino and is an Arcora associate program officer.

In my role, I am fortunate enough to partner with community-based organizations. Pacific Islander Health Board, Latino Educational Training Institute, and Asia Pacific Cultural Center are a few organizations I have worked with in the last year.

I take the time needed to make strong, trust-based connections within communities, which allow me to share the importance of good oral health and collaborate in ways that include everyone’s voice. Then I share with my Arcora colleagues the many ways health care inequality affects people across the state of Washington. With their expertise, we strategize ways to address these issues at a systemic level to improve health outcomes for all.

This work means so much to me because it allows me to be who I am, use my strengths in interpersonal relationship building, and support organizations serving the people with the most need. It allows me to uplift people from my community—Latino, LGBTQ, first generation college student—and other communities facing the same barriers to good oral health. Not often am I in a room with people who look like me. Whenever I can be a familiar, relatable, and welcoming face to those in a position to make change, it makes me feel like I am right where I am supposed to be.

I smile when I see a spark in someone’s eyes that something I have shared resonates with them. It lets me know I have made a difference, although small, and a step in the right direction.

Melissa Martinez

Melissa identifies as Latina and is an outreach specialist at Arcora.

I have the privilege of collaborating with dental providers, community partners, and patients to spread the word about Arcora’s programs.

But what I do isn’t just about dental health. It’s also about championing equity! My mission is crystal clear: I’m dedicated to ensuring that every Washingtonian enjoys equitable access to health care. This commitment runs deep as I vividly recall my own parents’ struggles to access care while growing up.

If you were to look back through my family photo albums, you would likely notice that my dad never smiled in photos, often opting to make a funny face—like sticking out his tongue—rather than show his discolored and decaying teeth. I was a preteen when I witnessed my father undergo the emotional experience of having all his teeth removed and replaced by full dentures before he was 50. On the day of his appointment, I anticipated that he would return with newfound confidence that would make him want to smile in photos. Instead, he sat at our dining table and cried. He regretted not placing a greater emphasis on seeking care and allowing himself to be discouraged so easily when he felt he couldn’t afford to see a dentist and struggled to find a dental office that would accommodate his lack of insurance. He felt he was entirely at fault.

What I came to understand years later was how, as parents, their priority was me, their daughter. Their first sacrifice was their own needs. Both my mother and father worked diligently to make ends meet, and any time away from work without pay required careful budgeting. This meant that, after ensuring I received the attention I needed, the additional time and money required to search for the resources necessary for their own care were scarcely available.

This profound personal experience especially fuels my passion for Apple Health—our state Medicaid program—and understanding of the hurdles providers face when serving Apple Health patients. My goal? To leverage this insight to reshape the standard of care to make health care accessible to everyone and provide accurate resources that make it easier to find the right care.

Konstanza Von Sternberg, Bilingual Referral Specialist - DentistLinkKonstanza Von Sternberg

Konstanza identifies as Latina and is an Arcora DentistLink referral specialist.

I was born in Ecuador and raised by a Hispanic/Latinx mother and an American father. My experience with health care was far easier than the classmates and friends I grew up with.

Growing up in a low-income household with two working parents, I spent a lot of time in after-school programs or at a friend’s home. I lived in Alexandria, Virginia in 4th and 5th grades and my best friend was Carolina, who is El Salvadoran. After performing our carefully crafted dance routines, we rushed back into her apartment for snacks and beverages of the sugary kind. Remember those little barrel-shaped sugar bombs with the foil lids? That kind. I’m talking dollar-store popsicles, Kool-Aid mix, those big bags of store brand cereal, and even Carolina’s leftover Halloween candy from 2 years ago if we were really desperate. With no adults around, it was too easy to run straight down to cavity town.

I understand all of this as an adult. I also understand this as a child of a first-generation immigrant—and friend of many first-generation immigrants. There are certain sacrifices you make in the pursuit of a better life. This includes hustling day and night to make sure those that come after you don’t have to. Or sacrificing how much time you spend at home during the week so that you can afford to fill the piñata on birthdays. And even letting go of certain health needs so you can still afford to keep the water running and the stove hot. Luckily, my mom arrived early enough each night to force me to brush my teeth. So many of us grew up with the privilege of having our parents around to do these things. And as much as I would have felt lucky to be in Carolina’s position when I was that age, I’m lucky I didn’t get the option.

Fiestas Patrias 2020.

This is why I do what I do, and why it means so much to me. I had the privilege of regular dental care growing up. Now, I get to use that privilege to make a difference in my own community. The community that nourished my stomach and my soul when I needed it the most. I want to be part of the reason things get easier on us. Even if it is in a small way.

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at info@arcorafoundation.org.

Bridging the gap: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month and the vitality of oral health

By Carmen Mendez

As we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, it is a time for reflection on the cultural values and experiences that have shaped our lives. For me, the significance of this month is deeply intertwined with my journey to understand the importance of oral health, a lesson that was often overlooked during my upbringing in rural Mexico.

Growing up, oral health was not a priority in my family or community. We lacked access to proper dental care, and the consequences of this neglect soon became evident. I, like many others, found myself plagued by cavities and dental issues at a young age. The discomfort and pain were a constant reminder of the importance of good oral hygiene, but the means to address these issues were scarce.

These early experiences shaped my perception of dentists. Visits to the dentist were filled with fear and anxiety, as the memory of painful treatments lingered. When I eventually moved to the United States, I brought this apprehension with me. My relationship with dental care remained strained, as the trust I needed to place in my new dentist was hard to come by.

It was only after years of living in the United States that I began to understand that oral health is an integral part of overall health. The connection between oral health and one’s well-being is undeniable. It affects not only our ability to eat, speak, and smile but also our self-esteem and confidence. This realization was a turning point in my life.

Today, as an Arcora Foundation trustee, I have the privilege of being part of an organization that is committed to making a difference in the lives of individuals like me, who have faced challenges in accessing dental care. Our goal is to break down the barriers that prevent people from achieving good oral health. We collaborate with partners to reach communities that face barriers to care, provide education on oral hygiene, and advocate for policies and systems changes that promote oral health equity.

Hispanic Heritage Month serves as a reminder of the rich tapestry of cultures that make up this country. It is also a time to recognize the disparities that persist in various aspects of life, including health care. Oral health, often overlooked, is a critical component of overall well-being. It is a reminder that there is much work to be done in bridging the gap and ensuring that everyone, regardless of their background, can enjoy good oral health.

In celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, let us also celebrate the progress being made in advancing oral health equity. My journey from a childhood marked by dental neglect to becoming an Arcora Foundation trustee is a testament to the transformative power of understanding and prioritizing oral health. Together, we can bend the arc of oral health toward equity, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to smile confidently and live a healthier life.

Carmen Mendez

Carmen Mendez is an Arcora Foundation trustee and director of food access network and allocation at Northwest Harvest.

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at info@arcorafoundation.org.

Policy for sustainable oral health improvements

Spring trees and flowers bloom in front of the Washington state capitol building

Policy Director Alison Mondi shares highlights from the 2023 Legislative Session.

Washington state’s 2023 Legislative Session has concluded, and legislators are back in their home districts for the interim. It was a busy 105 days! Arcora Foundation is pleased to share the many wins for oral health and health equity.

Thanks to the dedication and advocacy of oral health providers, patient advocates, and oral health champions in the Legislature, lawmakers passed bills and budgets that support improved access to oral health care, prevention of disease, and a more robust workforce. Arcora works alongside provider organizations, patient advocates, community-based organizations, and others as we pursue meaningful systems change to reduce disparities and further oral health equity.

Here is a summary of the oral health measures that passed this session. We look forward to continued work with advocacy partners, legislative champions, and other state leaders on implementation.

Community Water Fluoridation

ESHB 1251, which requires 90 days of public notice before a decision to stop or start community water fluoridation, passed the House and Senate with unanimous votes and was signed by Gov. Inslee on April 20.

Fluoridation is an effective and equitable way to prevent tooth decay. This legislation will help ensure residents, as well as their dental and medical providers, have timely and accurate information about a decision that impacts their health and wellbeing. Thank you to prime sponsor Rep. Monica Stonier, Senate companion prime sponsor Sen. June Robinson, and everyone who advocated for this important public health measure!

“Tooth decay is preventable and yet it is the number one chronic disease facing children. Parents and providers need to know if their water system is considering changing its fluoridation status in order to take the needed steps to protect oral health, which is why I strongly support ESHB 1251.”

Dr. Elisabeth Warder, Dental Director, CHAS Health

Apple Health (Medicaid) Dental and Access to Care

The final operating and capital budgets included funding to support increased access to oral health care for Apple Health enrollees and Washingtonians who face challenges accessing dental care.

Two improvements for the Apple Health dental program will go into effect on January 1, 2024:

  • A 40% reimbursement rate increase for pediatric dental cleanings (code D1120) in the Apple Health program to support access to preventive oral health care for kids.
  • An increase in the allowable number of periodontal treatments (code D4910) to up to four per 12-month period for adult Medicaid enrollees with diabetes to support better health outcomes.

The Legislature also continued the public/private partnership for DentistLink, which works to support providers and connect more patients to care. DentistLink—fully funded by Arcora and the Washington State Health Care Authority—is a no-cost referral service that connects people with Apple Health (Medicaid) or no insurance to care.

The capital budget includes funding to increase dental clinic capacity with seven projects at six Community Health Centers. The projects will serve people with low-incomes, communities of color, and those in rural areas. Funding these projects will increase access to oral health services by providing an additional 37,503 dental appointments.

Legislators also passed SHB 1683 (Rep. Stephanie Barnard), which requires stand-alone dental carriers to pay for covered denture services, with the goal of increasing access to care.

Oral Health Workforce

Access to timely and culturally relevant care is only possible with an adequate and representative oral health workforce. We’re pleased legislators took up this issue and passed several measures aimed at increasing the oral health workforce and supporting a more diverse workforce:

  • ESHB 1503 requires collection of health care professionals’ demographic information at the time of license application and license renewal. Thank you to Rep. Marcus Riccelli for championing this measure to support better information about the composition of our workforce!
  • Several bills will make it easier for hygienists trained in other states to work in Washington: ESHB 1576 (Rep. Michelle Caldier), HB 1287 (Rep. My-Linh Thai), and ESHB 1466 (Rep. Marcus Riccelli).
  • SB 5113 permits out-of-state dentists to practice as faculty at all accredited dental schools in Washington.

“Passage of ESHB 1503 is a significant step forward to helping to identify health care gaps across our state, especially in rural areas and for historically underrepresented populations.”

Lolinda Turner, Program Manager for Dental Workforce Diversity & Inclusion, Delta Dental of Washington

In a significant milestone, legislators passed ESHB 1678 (Rep. Marcus Riccelli), which authorizes dental therapy in federally qualified health centers (FQHCs). Dental therapists are mid-level dental providers who work under the supervision of a dentist and provide prevention as well as a limited set of restorative services for patients. Dental therapy is currently only authorized in Tribal settings in Washington.

Legislators also funded several budget items to support the oral health workforce:

  • Continued funding for a University of Washington Center for Health Workforce Studies program to track dental workforce trends.
  • Funding to support the startup of the dental therapy education program at Skagit Valley College in partnership with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
  • Funding for the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences (PNWU) School of Dental Medicine Community Health Partnership. This partnership places students in rural and underserved community settings after the first year, where they will receive hands-on clinical training observed by a supervising dentist.

None of these wins would be possible without so many partners across the state and in the Legislature who tirelessly advocate for policy changes that support providers; increase access to timely and culturally relevant care; and prevent oral disease.

If you have questions about the 2023 Legislative Session, or would like to discuss potential areas of collaboration for future legislative sessions, please reach out to AMondi@ArcoraFoundation.org.

Alison Mondi
Policy Director, Arcora Foundation

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at info@arcorafoundation.org.

Juneteenth honors Black Americans’ past

For a healthier future, equity is essential.

For Juneteenth, we recognize how far Black Americans have come from the enslavement of our ancestors. We honor our struggles and successes. We celebrate our rich culture and our resilient spirit. Black joy embodies this optimism and passion for a bright future. 

Black joy also embraces the ability to achieve good oral and overall health. Both are essential to reach your full health potential. Poor oral health is linked to diabetes, heart disease, and other serious or life-threatening conditions. In Washington state, data show disparities in oral health care by race and ethnicity. 

At Arcora Foundation and Delta Dental of Washington, we advance equity in oral health. Our shared vision is that everyone enjoys good oral and overall health with no one left behind. We are leaning into that vision through efforts to empower Black people and others who have previously been left behind across Washington state toward positive change. Here are examples of what we are doing: 

Dental Professional Pathways Program—This program introduces youth from historically underrepresented groups to careers in the dental field. Studies show the lack of diversity in the field is linked to oral health disparities. 

Policy work—Action at the policy level brings sustainable change to systems. These changes expand prevention resources and access to care to include more people. We collaborate with policymakers, lobbyists, and local and state elected officials to advance our policy priorities. Wins for oral health from the 2023 legislative session include: 

  • Gov. Inslee signed a bill into law that requires a 90-day public notice before water systems stop or start community water fluoridation. I had the pleasure to watch the governor sign this bill! Rural, low-income, and underserved communities suffer most from lack of access to fluoridation. As a result, adults and children needlessly suffer from oral health problems. Research shows community water fluoridation is the most cost-effective, equitable way to prevent cavities and tooth decay in people of all ages and backgrounds.

  • $500,000 over the 2023-2025 biennium to continue the public-private partnership with the Washington State Health Care Authority (HCA) so DentistLink can continue to connect more patients with access challenges to care. DentistLink is a no-cost referral service that connects people with Apple Health (Medicaid) or no insurance to care. Arcora and the HCA fully fund DentistLink. 

  • $328,000—state and federal funding combined—over the 2023-2025 biennium to improve the Medicaid periodontal maintenance benefit for people with diabetes statewide (takes effect Jan. 1, 2024).  

  • The governor signed a bill into law that authorizes dental therapy statewide. The new law allows Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and FQHC look-alike clinics to hire dental therapists. The law expands access to care to more people who otherwise might not be able to afford it. 
I had the privilege to connect with young scientists as part of the Dental Professional Pathways Program’s partnership with the Storm Academy.
Arcora Foundation, Delta Dental of Washington, and partners witness Governor Inslee sign ESHB1251 into law.

I am excited about Arcora’s and Delta Dental of Washington’s continued work with partners on these and other upstream interventions. Progress toward greater equity in oral health is happening. Our sustained efforts move us closer to a time when everyone—no matter their background—is cavity-free. 

Happy Juneteenth!  

Vanetta Abdellatif
President and CEO, Arcora Foundation