Dental therapy: Alleviating pain and suffering

As a Lutheran pastor who has served New Mexico for 47 years, I join with colleagues across this state who urge our state to authorize dental therapists to provide life-changing and life-saving dental care to eliminate the chronic pain and suffering that is epidemic across our state. The bill is through the Legislature; it just needs the signature of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

According to the New Mexico Health Department, more than 1 in 4 of our children have untreated dental disease. Fifty-six percent of kids in New Mexico are covered by Medicaid; however, just half of all dentists are willing to serve Medicaid patients.

Our elders, the disabled, indigenous peoples and veterans are among those who disproportionately suffer from the lack of access to dental services. More than half of the counties in New Mexico have a shortage of dental professionals. One in 5 seniors has untreated tooth decay; residents of nursing homes are among some of the most neglected.

Consider also the matter of cost. The number of patients turning to emergency rooms for dental care has nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010 with a cost of nearly $2.7 billion, according to a major study in 2014. And yet these patients seldom receive actual dental care, only prescriptions for medications (including painkillers).

In underserved communities, chronic oral pain is a growing contributor to the opioid epidemic. Long-term opioid use can cause more serious oral health problems, thus trapping people in a vicious cycle of pain, addiction, and rotting teeth and gums that leads to the need for more painkillers.

Imagine an elementary school student trying to remain focused in class while enduring the throbbing pain of a toothache that keeps getting worse. How can we expect this child to thrive in school and succeed in life?

Add to this diseases resulting from the lack of dental care — diseases that spread to the heart and brain, diseases like diabetes and even cancer — and life becomes a biblical “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (if any teeth are there to gnash).

Alaska, Maine, Vermont, Minnesota, Washington, Michigan and Arizona have dental therapists currently treating patients and expanding access to care or have passed legislation authorizing them to do so.

A dental therapist is a licensed professional trained to practice an expanded scope of services under off-site supervision of a dentist who is also available to step in for more complex cases. Santa Fe Community College and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute stand ready to provide this training and create a new career opportunity for our best and brightest.

After 10 years of study, research and debate, New Mexico stands ready to join them. We can no longer ignore a health crisis that plagues our state and so many of our most vulnerable. We know how to remedy this health crisis. All it takes is a concerned community, an enlightened and caring government, and the laws needed to turn hope into reality. The adage is true: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” May it be so soon.

Ben Larzelere is a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, having served in Albuquerque since 1972 and Santa Fe since 1975. He retired in 2012 and lives in Santa Fe.