By Roz Brown, Public News Service – NM
Mar. 14, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. – Nearly 900,000 New Mexicans do not have access to dental health care, but legislation headed for the governor’s desk would change that.

New Mexico is poised to become the eighth state to adopt a program that allows dental therapists to provide routine and preventive care and take their skills to rural areas where dental health care often is lacking or non-existent.

Jacob Vigil, a research and policy analyst with New Mexico Voices for Children, says the bill will allow thousands of rural and underserved residents suffering from dental decay access to professional care.

“This is really a game changer for our state, being a state that’s very large, with a big rural population, tribal population,” Vigil stresses. “This is a really innovative and critical step that our state is taking to address those access needs.”

The governor is expected to sign the legislation.

Vigil says New Mexico’s Native Americans suffer the most with dental care, noting that Navajo Head Start reports that 70 percent of the program’s children have untreated tooth decay.

Arizona and Michigan also have passed similar legislation this year to provide dental care for residents who are low-income, uninsured or living in rural and tribal areas.

Vigil says more than 25 percent of elementary-aged children in New Mexico have untreated tooth decay, and having access to dental care through the new therapist program will provide them with a better quality of life and potentially help them succeed in school.

“Given the impact of dental health on overall health, particularly with children, and so we know that about a quarter of children in New Mexico have untreated dental disease, and that has a huge impact on their education, on their lifetime health,” he states.

Efforts have been under way for eight years to get the legislation passed.

Dental therapists are licensed dental practitioners who work as part of dentist-led teams, providing services similar to a physician’s assistant.

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