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NM Christmas Wish: More Trips to the Dentist?

December 20, 2010

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Forget just those "two front teeth;" what more New Mexico children need for Christmas is access to dental health care. A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found persistent barriers that prevent millions of low-income children from seeing a dentist to get proper care.

Shelly Gehshan, director of the Pew Children's Dental Campaign, calls it the biggest unmet need among children, one that can lead to other health problems, and even affect their education.

"If you're a kid who's in school and you have a toothache, you can't eat, you can't smile, you won't play happily. You're not going to learn very well."

Gehshan says fluoridated water and sealant programs for children are great ways for states to prevent serious dental problems down the line, and the need for much more expensive care later in life, which taxpayers often end up paying for through Medicaid.

The GAO says New Mexico has one of the highest rates of children eligible for dental care through Medicaid who actually visit the dentist, although the rate is still less than half of all eligible children.

Gehshan explains that part of the problem is a lack of access in rural areas.

"There may not be anyone that a family can drive to, even if they're willing to drive long distances. So, it's a very serious problem."

Gehshan says her organization is encouraging more states to authorize new types of dental providers, like dental therapists, comparable to nurse practitioners in the medical field. They can perform a variety of services, including filling cavities.

The GAO report is at www.gao.gov

Eric Mack, Public News Service - NM