Dental care charity is not enough

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By Merilee Dannemann

If you need dental care and live far from the nearest dentist or can’t afford the cost, you might plan a trip to Albuquerque on Sept. 22-23. That weekend will be the occasion of the sixth annual Mission of Mercy, called New Mexico’s largest charitable event.

An estimated 150 volunteer dentists will set up a temporary clinic in the Convention Center and provide services free of charge on a first-come first-served basis.

 There have been five such events since 2010, held in different cities. To date, New Mexico MOM has served more than 6,900 patients and has provided $4.9 million in donated dental care.
But New Mexico is still woefully short of access to dental care.

Reports show 32 of New Mexico’s 33 counties do not have adequate access. A 2017 report from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services states only about one-third of New Mexicans are adequately served, and an estimated 138 dentists are needed to bring the state up to standard.

So, in this writer’s opinion, the generosity of this charitable event does not compensate for the Legislature’s failure once again to pass a dental therapy bill.

Observers agree the problem is geographic, with rural communities having the least access.
A 2016 report of the legislative Indian Affairs Committee indicates dental access is worse for Native Americans than other populations, reflected both in their dental health and their general health.

Colin Baillio of Health Action New Mexico testified there is twice as much untreated dental disease in tribal communities as in the general population.

Since dental problems contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other health problems, Baillio said improved dental care would reduce the cost of treating these diseases. Health care reformers, please take note.

The 2017 dental therapy bill, HB 264, passed the House by a vote of 60-5, but died in a Senate committee without a recorded vote. Similar bills had been introduced at least three times in recent years. This year’s bill was sponsored by Rep. Dennis Roch, R- Logan, and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D- Albuquerque.

The issue has not changed substantially since I wrote about it in 2013 and 2015.
Dental therapists are mid-level providers qualified to work under the supervision of a dentist who is not on the premises. The work they are authorized to do is limited and would be detailed in the statute.

The New Mexico Dental Association proposes (on its website) that New Mexico needs to make progress on starting our own dental school.

This recommendation comes in the midst of growing concern that New Mexico needs to reduce, not increase, our number of colleges and campuses, because we can’t fund them all adequately.
The NMDA responds to the well documented need for dental services and the success of dental therapy programs elsewhere by saying it needs more study. With all due respect, it should be studied with a pilot program, not procrastination.

Meanwhile, sincere thanks for the Mission of Mercy.