Under a new state mandate, public school students who recently relocated to New Mexico or are transferring to a new district or charter school are required to have had a dental exam within the past year to enroll.
The rule, which takes effect July 1, applies to new students at all grade levels.
The Legislature passed the dental exam requirement in 2019 as part of a larger dental health bill intended to expand access to oral health care in a state where a quarter of elementary school students may have untreated tooth decay, according to the New Mexico Dental Therapist Coalition.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is evidence dental decay is associated with lower grades and higher absences among students.
Preschool programs funded by the state already require dental exams within three months of enrollment.
“Our primary focus is the health and well-being of our students,” said Ashley Garcia, Medicaid and health services coordinator at the New Mexico Public Education Department. “We want to encourage our schools to offer [support] to our families.”
No money was appropriated for districts to enforce the mandate or to offer aid to students who are unable to meet the requirement.
The Santa Fe school board recently approved a policy to ensure compliance with the rule, but one member raised concerns.
Lorraine Price said inconsistencies in dental health care for low-income students seeking required exams could result in children getting teeth pulled rather than receiving tooth-saving treatments such as fillings and root canals.
The cost of a root canal can be twice that of a tooth extraction.
“You have to have a credit card or insurance most of the time to walk into a dentist,” Price told fellow board members at a public meeting. “Yes, we have ways of providing care for children, and the state may recognize that children have come in with mouthfuls of cavities. However, I’m concerned about what happens once that is diagnosed. I don’t want adult teeth pulled from students rather than fillings, crowns or root canals that need to be done.”
Numerous studies, including one published in the journal Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, note inequalities in tooth loss based on racial and socioeconomic factors. Non-Hispanic white people and people of higher incomes are more likely to retain their adult teeth, the studies say.
“If the state wants to make this mandate, then they should have provided the money for the child to go and have good care,” Price argued.
She cast the only no vote when the board voted to approve the new policy.
Price did not respond to email or phone requests to comment.
Like other districts across the state, Santa Fe Public Schools is reaching out to community organizations in hopes of finding resources to help children without dental insurance who are in need of dental care.
At a May school board meeting, Student Wellness Coordinator Sue O’Brien said the district works with the state Office of Oral Health to provide sealant treatments for elementary students.
Neither district nurse Anita Hett nor O’Brien could be reached for comment on efforts to expand dental aid for kids during the summer.
The district’s new policy says students will not be denied enrollment at a school due to lack of dental insurance or inability to pay for an exam. If a student does not get a dental exam prior to enrollment, however, parents or guardians are required to sign a waiver indicating they understand “the risks associated when a student does not undergo a dental examination prior to school enrollment.”
“The need for a dental exam does not trump a student’s constitutional right to an education,” board President Kate Noble said. “In fact, it’s the other way around.”
Starting in July 2022, the Public Education Department will collect data on students who get exams and those who sign waivers.
“And we are going to be developing a report for legislative committees in the future, so this data may be able to potentially inform future legislative initiatives or future recommendations. It will give us a better picture,” Garcia said.