Sixty years ago, dentistry was considered uninsurable. Tooth decay and gum disease were more a certainty than a risk and dentures were all but common in adults over 50. Most people went to the dentist only in the case of an emergency; relatively few went once a year let alone twice. Insurance companies believed that only people who needed major repairs would be willing to buy dental insurance. Into the picture steps the trustees of a Welfare Fund operated by the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), representing Pacific Coast dockworkers and the Pacific Martine Association.
In early 1954, the trustees agreed to finance an experimental dental program for the children of the union members. State dental associations in Washington, Oregon and California were invited to help design the program. It was the first time a labor union had ever negotiated for benefits that would apply only to the children of its members. It was also the first time dentists were ever invited to help design such a program.
With an emphasis on prevention, the dentists wanted to ensure the children received the best treatment possible. Nearly 500 dentists, about two-thirds of the total number of dentists in Washington signed up to participate in the program. In October of 1954, the Washington State Dental Service Corporation, predecessor of Delta Dental of Washington and the National Delta Dental Plans Association was born.
What began as a small “startup” that few expected to last more than a year became the pioneer of a new industry, one that has redefined the nature of oral health and dental care.