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No dental crisis in New Mexico

The op-ed column about dental therapists from Dr. Howard Rhodes on Dec. 8 is typical of the orchestrated propaganda that is repeatedly placed in the media by pro-therapists groups, led by those outside New Mexico.

There is not a “dental crisis” in New Mexico. There are many dentists and dental hygienists in the urban areas that are not busy or can’t find jobs.

What New Mexico has is a distribution problem. New Mexico now ranks 29th in its dentists per capita ratio – not perfect, but not a crisis.

True, patients may drive to see dentists, but nowhere in the state are patients more than 45 to 60 minutes away from a dental facility; New Mexico is not Alaska.

Many studies show that the main factor in proliferation of dental disease is fear, cost and lack of dental health education. Truth is, even with dental insurance, dental utilization hovers just above 50 percent.

Fear will be the same whether a therapist or dentist delivers the care. Costs will not go down with therapists.

In fact, Health Action New Mexico representatives have said they need dental fees to stay the same with therapists to make them economically feasible. The only places that have had successful dental therapists programs – Alaska tribes, New Zealand, England – have been government subsidized.

Do you think New Mexico will subsidize this new practitioner when we can’t even get decent Medicaid rates for existing dentists?

If New Mexico would increase Medicaid reimbursement to reasonable levels, dentists and dental hygienists would be moving to under-served areas on their own. No new practitioner needed.

Dental health education and increased capacity for dentists can be accomplished by utilizing the Community Dental Health Coordinator and the Expanded Function Dental Auxiliary that the New Mexico Dental Association passed through the Legislature three years ago. Community dental health coordinators are from under-served communities, educated in dental prevention and basic care, then sent back to serve their community and facilitate dental care.

Lastly, dental therapists are not “highly trained health care professionals.” Depending on the version of the therapist bill you choose, therapists can have as little as 18 to 24 months of training out of high school!

They are a technician being allowed to do surgical procedures in patients’ mouths. Many, including myself, are afraid these therapists will be utilized in large practice settings to increase volume and income for the owners with little regard for the patients.

In closing, with a little financial commitment from the state, we could attack the dental care distribution problem, and have fully qualified dentists and dental hygienists teams treating under-served populations.

There is no need to turn loose a new lower level of practitioner on the residents of New Mexico.

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