Working across party lines to address the dental care crisis


As elected officials, it is our duty to listen to our constituents about the problems they face and work together to look for common sense solutions. We need to work across the aisle to find creative and innovative ways to do what the people sent us to the Roundhouse to do.

One of the biggest problems facing New Mexicans is a lack of access to dental care. It doesn’t matter if you live in a remote rural area or right in the middle of one of our cities, our dental care system isn’t getting people the care they need in a timely manner, if at all. A recent workforce report found that over half of all counties in New Mexico are dealing with a shortage of dentists, especially in rural New Mexico.

This oral health crisis impacts our kids, our veterans, our elderly, our Native American communities. More than half of New Mexico’s residents have advanced gum disease -- the highest percentage of any state in the country. For years we have heard from constituents about not being able to find a dentist who accepts their insurance, going months without treatment, and even travelling to Mexico to get the care they need. The recent Mission of Mercy (an annual free dental care event) showcased the issue that people all over the state face.

As legislators, we can’t wait any longer to take action on this issue. We need to take steps to address this crisis, such as allowing dental therapists to practice in New Mexico. Dental therapists are highly trained mid-level professionals on the dental team who can perform routine and preventative services in a role similar to that of physician assistants in medicine. This blends a free market and public health approach to tackle a critical issue facing our state.

Many states, such as Alaska, Minnesota, Washington, and Oregon, are using dental therapists to increase access to dental care – and evidence is showing that this is a safe, cost-effective solution that will work. One recent study found that the use of dental therapists in remote Alaska Native communities has dramatically reduced the need for restorative care, like fillings, because they have prevented tooth decay from occurring in the first place.

In Minnesota, dental therapists are working in both rural and urban areas, increasing access to quality dental care and saving money for both private practice dentists and nonprofit health clinics. Several of us had the opportunity to meet with a dental therapy team from Minnesota to learn about the work they do to improve oral health in their communities. We were amazed to hear about the innovative ways they were able to get care to people all over the state. We know that New Mexico can develop our own model to meet the needs of our state in a way that creates good-paying jobs and addresses a critical need in our communities.

The New Mexico state legislature came very close to passing a dental therapy bill in the 2017 session. The bill was developed through a first-of-its-kind collaboration between public health advocates, dental hygienists, and dentists. It had strong bipartisan support from policymakers and widespread support across the state.

The momentum and support behind dental therapy has continued to grow in New Mexico and we encourage our colleagues to support this critical effort to address New Mexico’s oral health care crisis.

By Senator Benny Shendo (D),
Representative Dennis Roch (R),
Senator Bill Tallman (D),
Representative Yvette Herrell (R),
and Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D)