Free Clinic grant will help needy with dental care

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Low-income, uninsured Clark County residents who need root canals, crowns or other specialty dental services will soon have a new option when seeking care.

The Free Clinic of Southwest Washington received a $150,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente to launch a new oral health program designed to provide dental care to the uninsured population.

Funding for the three-year grant was distributed last month. Before the end of the first year, the clinic plans to be treating patients, said Barbe West, executive director of the Free Clinic.

The Free Clinic currently provides emergency dental services, such as fillings and extractions, but does not offer more advanced treatment. So far this year, the dental clinic has already had more than 1,500 patient visits.

“What we’re finding in many of our patients is they need this next level of care,” West said.

The oral health program will be modeled after the clinic’s Project Access program, which provides specialty medical services, West said.

The clinic will recruit dentists to provide free specialty care in their offices. Clinic staff will conduct the financial screening to make sure the patient qualifies and coordinate the appointments with providers, West said.

The clinic will also arrange for an interpreter and transportation, if necessary. And if a patient needs medications following the procedure, the clinic can help the patient obtain them, West said.

The program will be available to adults 18 to 64 years old who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The clinic will accept referrals from other safety net partners in the community, she said.

Much of the first year of the program will be spent recruiting dentists and establishing procedures. In addition, the clinic hopes to treat at least 25 patients by the end of the first year. In the second year, the goal is to provide care for 60 to 85 patients and in the third year, care for 125 to 185 patients, West said.

In addition to the oral health program, a portion of the money will be used to provide primary care physicians and dentists with education on the value of coordinating care. The clinic also hopes to provide opportunities for discussion on the topic, West said.

In addition, another portion of the grant money will be used for advocacy work to try to increase access to dental insurance, West said.

The number of people in need of dental care has surged since the beginning of the year when Medicaid funding for dental care was eliminated, she said.

The Free Clinic has felt the repercussions of the cuts. Every day the clinic receives about 50 calls from adults looking for dental care. The wait list for the clinic’s urgent dental care stretches out two and a half to three months, she said.

The clinic also recognizes the bigger impact on the community, West said.

“We are seeing more and more patients present themselves at the Free Clinic who have described they’ve been trying to seek jobs but because of the state of the disease in their mouth, they’re turned down for jobs,” she said.

Those who are turned down for jobs due to dental issues can’t generate income, can’t afford dental insurance and can’t pay for care, West said. Without Medicaid funding and programs to provide the dental care, the cycle continues, West said.

Clinic officials hope the new program will help meet some of the need.

“It’s a bigger problem than getting someone’s teeth fixed,” she said.

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.