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Lawmakers look to improve dental care in rural NM

SANTA FE — A bipartisan group of New Mexico legislators is pushing to expand


Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, speaks at the Roundhouse in March. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

dental care in rural areas by creating a new system of licensed dental therapists — a mid-level professional between a dentist and a hygienist.

Oral health, supporters say, is a foundation for good overall health care and well-being.

“Can you imagine yourself as a kid having a tooth ache? It just bothers you,” Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, said in an interview. “You’re not going to focus on school and so forth.”

A dental proposal in this year’s legislative session, House Bill 264, won overwhelming approval in the House but failed to reach the Senate floor. It would have established a licensing system for dental therapists and allowed them to practice in New Mexico.

The primary sponsors were Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, and Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

But a new coalition of lawmakers has signed onto the push for dental therapists: Roch, Shendo, Democratic Sen. Bill Tallman of Albuquerque, Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo and Democratic Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque

Barbara Webber, executive director Health Action New Mexico, a consumer health advocacy group, said dental therapists would be mid-level professionals, akin to physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

They would get an associate’s degree, probably through a three-year program at a community college, she said. The job might pay in the neighborhood of $60,000 to $70,000 a year, Webber said, and fill a critical need in New Mexico.

About half of the state’s population has advanced gum disease, one of the worst rates in the nation, Webber said.

The upcoming legislative session is generally dedicated to the state budget and financial matters. The dental proposal includes an appropriation, Webber said, so it might be considered germane to the session, even if Republican Gov. Susana Martinez doesn’t place it on the agenda.

The 30-day session starts Jan. 16.