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Rural dental care stumbles in Senate

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By Sherry Robinson

If you live in a rural area and you have a toothache, chances are you’ll have to drive for several hours to get help.
A bill to remedy that, now stuck in a Senate committee, shows us both the strengths of our legislative system and the weaknesses. The strengths are the power of bipartisan cooperation, in this case, between Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., D-Jemez Springs, and Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico. The weakness is the power of one person to mess things up.
You probably know by now that New Mexico doesn’t have enough dentists. We rank 39th in the United States, according to Health Action New Mexico, a consumer advocacy group. More than a third of rural school kids have tooth decay.
Senate Bill 76 would create a new kind of dental provider, the dental therapist-hygienist, who would occupy a niche between a dentist and a hygienist. With supervision from a dentist, the therapist-hygienist could provide many services, including extractions.
The model is a program that has served Alaska Native villages. People in the village choose an individual, who receives training and then returns to provide dental care for his or her village.
“The Alaska model is a Native solution to a Native problem,” Shendo told me. “It would work here.”


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