As a young Native American, I am far too familiar with lack of access to health care. Throughout my life, I have traveled extreme distances just to see a doctor, making it difficult to get much-needed care. This is especially true of dental care.
Last year, as a result of poor access to dental care, I suffered in pain for many months with a broken, infected tooth. As the pain became unbearable, I even tried pulling the tooth out myself.
Mine is a common story throughout rural America — especially on reservations.
In New Mexico, nearly 40 percent of children have untreated tooth decay.
At least three counties do not even have one dentist, leaving children vulnerable to the most preventable pain and infection.
Native American youth and those in foster care are severely impacted by dental shortages, as well.
Nationwide, roughly 50 percent of Native American youth live in federally designated dental shortage areas, and nearly 35 percent of children in foster care, like me, have severe oral health problems.
Although there are many challenges to getting adequate dental care in tribal and rural communities, I am proud that innovative Native American communities are leading the way in bringing care to those who need it most.
More than a decade ago, Alaska Native leaders developed a mid-level dental position called dental therapists who safely provide preventative and routine care as part of a dentist-led team.
In just 10 years, the dental therapists have increased access to dental care for over 40,000 people in communities across Alaska, many of whom had never even seen a dentist because of the difficulties in attracting dentists to rural areas.
New Mexico experiences those same difficulties in recruiting dentists to rural areas, so it is even more devastating that special-interest groups like the New Mexico Dental Association and American Dental Association (ADA) lobby to prevent the creation of mid-level providers who could provide children and the elderly with the quality health care that they desperately need.
When the ADA and others block rural and Native American communities from utilizing a safe method for dental care, more young people like me will have to live with pain and infection, preventing us from realizing our full potential.
Utilizing dental therapists in New Mexico is an important part of improving the well-being and confidence of Native youth, foster children, and all people in the state.
The success in Alaska demonstrates what creating a local solution to a local problem can do and Alaska Native communities are now seeing cavity-free children for the first time in nearly a century.
Let’s replicate that success in New Mexico for our rural and Native American communities.
Littlebear Sanchez, who lives in Albuquerque, is a member of the Lipan/Mescalero Apache Nation and is a youth advocate with the Center for Native American Youth.