As a public health agency, the Indian Health Service (IHS) must plan for the needs of the entire American Indian and Alaskan Native (AI/AN) population and distribute resources as equitably as possible. To facilitate this process, the IHS has developed a manpower planning model to provide for the distribution of dental providers based upon the dental needs of the AI/AN population and within the limits of annual appropriations of funds. This paper briefly describes the original IHS Dental Program manpower planning model and the development of modifications over time. The need-based approach to manpower planning developed by the IHS Dental Program has exhibited utility and flexibility over time. It allows a determination of clinic size (number of operatories) and dental staffing requirements, and may be generalizable to other public health programs if an accurate assessment of utilization rate and treatment need can be made for the defined population. Nonetheless, the availability of resources in public programs is subject to the compromises inherent in the political process; thus, the use of a manpower planning model alone may not be sufficient to ensure the equitable distribution of dental resources and dental providers.