Dental coalition focuses on permanence

A traveling dental office may drop off the list of oral health resources for the area's underserved population, pushing the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition to build a facility that goes beyond a stopgap measure.

Debi Harmon, the coalition's executive director, said the news may be a blessing in disguise.

The Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition and the Miles for Smiles Dental Van have come to be almost synonymous, Harmon said. But the local coalition always has sought a more permanent solution to the dental crisis than the traveling van operated out of Denver.

"The van just takes care of kids," Harmon said. "That's not the whole problem."

Harmon has plenty of stories about children with oral problems. But she also has horror stories from adults who don't have access to dental care, such as the man who pulled his own tooth because he couldn't afford dentistry.

The Dental Coalition for years has explored the possibility of setting up a safety-net clinic for indigent or uninsured people in Northwest Colorado.

And now that the van's future is uncertain at best, the Dental Coalition feels a renewed urgency to bring the clinic dreams to life.

It's going to have to be a community effort, Harmon said. The Dental Coalition will have to demonstrate to potential funding sources that other community agencies are supportive of its efforts, and the coalition needs volunteers to bang out all the details associated with establishing a permanent clinic.

About nine individuals already are volunteering to track down data and debate key questions, such as the size and scope of the clinic and whether the clinic should be built new or leased.

Harmon has pages of questions that won't be answered until the volunteers -- who have busy lives and also work on other community projects -- can make the phone calls and finish the research.

Ann Irvin is a public health nurse who took note of the need before the Dental Coalition started.

"I was there at the beginning," Irvin said. "It was the one program we didn't have for kids. The one thing they needed was dental care."

In her office, Irvin hung a quote that reads, "Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache."

Irvin and Harmon say their passion for the fixing the dental crisis has been driven by the children and adults they've seen in pain. Harmon believes that if people could see the problem first-hand like she does on a daily basis, they'd feel just as compelled.

"I can't turn my back on a child in pain," Harmon said.

Irvin said there are compelling financial reasons to support the clinic, even if one isn't moved by compassion.

"Even if we're not a caring society, even if we're just concerned about money, it's cheaper for us in the long run for us to provide preventative health care," Irvin said.

"We don't let people die in the streets," Irvin said. At some point, people with no access to dental care will show up in the public health system. Ignoring the need of those who have no access to dental care is just delaying the inevitable, Irvin said.

Irvin said the Dental Coalition needs fresh faces, creative ideas and a renewed enthusiasm to complete the legwork required to establish the clinic.

The project already has momentum that is promising, Harmon said. The Dental Coalition received a $25,000 planning grant to explore the feasibility of building a local safety net dental clinic. And the coalition is one of four agencies eligible for two giant grants to implement a dental clinic. The $450,000 grant is sponsored by the Caring for Colorado Foundation, which has shown an interest in Northwest Colorado, Harmon said.

In May, the foundation's CEO, vice-president of programming and project coordinator will come to town to meet with Harmon and the coalition's board.

The grant applications are due July 1.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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