A new scorecard from the Pew Center on the States downgraded New Mexico from an “A” to “B” since last year for its efforts to improve children’s oral health.
Some may think a “B” is just fine, even if it is a step down. But the Pew scorecard assigns grades based on policy efforts to improve oral health – not the results of those policies. Unfortunately, if grades were based on results, New Mexico would get a much lower mark, because too many of our kids aren’t getting the dental care they need.
As the report shows, just over half our Medicaid-enrolled kids received no dental care whatsoever in 2009. That’s over 100,000 New Mexican children in low-income families – kids who are already at high risk for poor oral health – not getting any dental care at all. (American Academy of Pediatrics, Children’s Health Insurance Status and Medicaid/CHIP Eligibility and Enrollment, 2008, State Reports. Sept.2009. p10.)
We are doing these children a terrible disservice.
Good oral health is critical to kids’ overall health, as well as to their ability to learn. Failure to get routine oral health care services early in life can set kids up for a lifetime of poor oral health and increase their risk of developing serious conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
We need policies that will bring needed dental care services to all kids as quickly as possible – and to do that, those policies must address our state’s severe dental care shortage head-on. Some 40 percent of our population – more than 780,000 New Mexicans – live in federally designated dental health professional shortage areas where there just aren’t enough dentists.
These communities need more frontline providers so that people can get routine, affordable dental care before their dental problems turn into dental emergencies.
One promising solution that I mentioned in my first post involves bringing in dental therapists to expand the reach of the dental care team, so that everyone can get affordable dental care when they need it, where they live.
A dental therapist is trained to work with a dentist, usually at a different location, to provide preventive and routine dental services such as cleanings, fillings and simple extractions. Because they don’t have to work in the same office with the dentist, dental therapists can help bring some of the most commonly needed dental care services to children and families who currently can’t get them. However, dental therapists are supervised by dentists, and many independent evaluations have shown that dental therapists provide the same quality of care as dentists for the routine services they perform.
Dental therapists can help save the system money, too. Because they don’t provide all the services a dentist does, their training is highly focused on performing a narrow scope of routine services, which they do over and over. This approach allows them to provide care at a lower cost to the system. Obviously, this is very important at a time when the state is strapped for cash and is considering cuts to Medicaid and other programs that provide dental care for children of low-income families.
As I reported last week, the state legislature this past session considered – but did not pass – a bill that would allow dental therapists to practice in New Mexico. I’m hopeful that our lawmakers will reconsider this proposal next year.
Too many of our poorest, most vulnerable children aren’t getting the dental care they need. Bringing in dental therapists could help us solve that problem – and earn us an “A,” not only for effort but results, too.