Dental van only hope for many Medicaid families

Inside a traveling dental office that arrived in Craig this week, Tina Fry cradled her 2-year-old son on her lap and watched her daughter undergo a dental examination that was long overdue.

Last year, Fry found out her 5-year-old daughter, Makenzie, had two cavities. That appointment was more than 200 miles away, at a clinic that accepts the family's Medicaid insurance. But last summer, Makenzie Fry's cavities couldn't be filled because the girl was afraid and unwilling to go through the procedure. The dentist suggested the family see a dentist that specializes in treating children.

"We went all the way to Colorado Springs and couldn't get it done," Tina Fry said.

For more than six months, Makenzie's cavities went untreated.

On Wednesday, the Fry children got treated locally, by a traveling office called the Miles For Smiles Dental Van.

Like many other Medicaid families, the Dental Van is their only hope for local dental treatment. The clinic's repertoire includes cleanings, fluoride treatments, X-rays and fillings. And it charges only 10 percent of the cost of the procedures. Also, the staff specializes in pediatric dentistry.

After the Hayden mother of three finished expressing her gratitude for a facility like the Dental Van, Fry spoke about the hardships she faced trying to arrange dental treatment for her children before the van's arrival.

On multiple occasions Fry drove to Colorado Springs, where offices that accept Medicaid fit her children into their schedules.

Until this year, even the Dental Van didn't accept Medicaid patients. The van treated patients that had fallen between the cracks: those whose families made too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but too little to afford insurance. This year, an organization called Kids In Need of Dentistry (KIND), which operates the van, changed its policies to provide treatment to Medicaid patients, too.

The move by KIND was a huge step toward addressing a dental crisis in Northwest Colorado, said Debi Harmon, the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition. Harmon often scrambles to arrange emergency treatment for children suffering from painful dental problems. It has long been her goal to focus on prevention rather than crisis control.

But since Medicaid isn't accepted by local dentists, many children simply go without routine cleanings and preventative treatment.

"In our area, families face travel barriers," Harmon said. "Now that the van's here, we're eliminating that."

Statistics from the clinic illustrate the importance of oral hygiene, Harmon said.

The clinic just completed a four-week stay in Steamboat as part of its 22-week tour in Northwest Colorado. Data compiled from the early weeks indicate that 95 percent of the children who were treated in the van last year had a clean bill of health and no dental decay.

"On the flip side," Harmon said, "98 percent of the Medicaid children, who hadn't been seen before, had to come back for multiple treatments for decay."

News of the van's availability to Medicaid clients traveled fast. Harmon already is booking appointments two weeks in advance.

"By the time next week is done, we'll be booking into April," Harmon said.

Medicaid patients or those who can't afford insurance can call Harmon to arrange an appointment. The van treats only children, and there are income guidelines for non-Medicaid families. To find out more, call Harmon at 824-1178.

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

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