Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed legislation that will make it easier for New Mexicans who are low-income, publicly insured or uninsured, or living in rural and tribal areas to access dental care. Sponsored by 49th District Rep. Gail Armstrong of Magdalena and 52nd District Rep. Doreen Gallegos of Las Cruces, HB 308 passed the Senate last Sunday with a vote of 30 to 12.

The Senate version of the bill was sponsored by 22nd District Sen. Benny Shendo Jr. of Jemez Pueblo.

Nearly 900,000 New Mexicans live in areas without enough dentists, with the burden falling heavily on rural, tribal, and low-income communities. More than 25 percent of elementary-aged children in New Mexico have untreated tooth decay, which impacts their ability to succeed in school and live healthy lives.

“Many people in our district struggle to get the dental care they need,” Armstrong told the Defensor Chieftain. “More and more research shows a strong connection between oral health and overall health. Dental therapists will help people in New Mexico access essential dental care.”

Similar to the way a physician’s assistant contributes to a medical team, dental therapists offer routine and preventive care, and complement the work of dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants, increasing the productivity and reach of the dental care team.

Gallegos, who carried the bill, said authorizing dental therapists not only meets the critical need of expanding dental care services in rural, tribal, and underserved communities, “but also creates good-paying jobs for New Mexicans.”

“We are grateful to the Legislature and the governor for making dental therapists a reality in New Mexico,” said James Jimenez, executive director on New Mexico Voices for Children. “This law not only creates a new career path for New Mexicans, but it also helps to address a critical need in many of our communities – better access to oral health care. This will be a game-changer.”

Most of the bill becomes effective on June 14, 2019. One of the next steps will be for New Mexico colleges and universities to develop and begin offering the degree program. Several schools have expressed interest in adding the degree to their current dental programs.

Dental therapists are licensed dental practitioners who work as part of dentist-led teams to expand access to care. Similar to the way a physician’s assistant contributes to a medical team, dental therapists offer routine and preventive care, and complement the work of dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants, increasing the productivity and reach of the dental care team.