Brushing the crisis aside

New dental clinic will help stem 'horrific' epidemic of decay

Craig resident Reta Hall didn't have anywhere to go to get care for her great-grandson's teeth.

He had three cavities, but no area dentist would accept Medicaid, and the cavities were only getting worse.

The only option that didn't entail four or five hours of travel was a traveling dental van.

Because Hall has custody of her great-grandson but has not adopted him, he can't be covered by her husband's insurance.

Medicaid is the only option.

And there's not much Medicaid can do for rotting teeth.

Uninsured and Medicaid-covered children in Moffat County have almost no options when their teeth are rotting, infected and abscessed.

But in less than three months, they'll have a place to go.

Eight years of hard work by the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition has brought the achievement of the ultimate dream: a clinic that serves the low-income and indigent population.

"I'm excited," Hall said. "A clinic will definitely help."

The Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition has netted an impressive array of grants, including a $450,000 Caring for Colorado Foundation award that will allow the group to open a clinic. A recently awarded $80,000 Department of Local Affairs grant will purchase equipment for the clinic.

Dental Coalition Director Debi Harmon has set an April 1 opening date. Plans include a clinic in the 400 block of Yampa Avenue.

The clinic will serve patients from infants to age 20 in Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Grand counties, but Harmon said no one will be excluded.

She knows what it's like to have a client in need of emergency carewho has nowhere to go.

In those cases, she sends clients to Mesa County, Glenwood Springs or to Denver. In many cases, she also must arrange transportation.

"It's so easy for someone to turn the other cheek unless they're the affected population or the family of someone who's affected," Harmon said. "I'm going to be so happy to just say, 'Let's schedule you an appointment.' This is an area that just has horrific dental issues."

Harmon said there's not a dentist in five counties that takes Medicaid. And she's talked with dentists and dental office workers who have no sympathy for patients in that situation. One office told her that perhaps Social Services should take custody of children with poor dental health because it was an indication of neglectful parenting.

It's a situation that infuriates Harmon.

"These are the things that drive me to continue to do this," she said. "Lack of education and lack of affordable, accessible dental care is the reason there's a problem. It's a big problem that we're ready to solve," she said.

Children in Northwest Colorado had access to the Mile for Smiles dental van for three years. The van came to Craig twice a year to provide services to youths in need.

In 2003, 66 percent more patients used the van than the year before. In 2004, 151 percent more patients used the service. And that was only 18 percent of the eligible Medicaid population, Harmon said. She said a conservative estimate of the number of children in Moffat County who would be eligible for the clinic's services is 4,200.

The coalition has hired a dentist with 26 years of experience working with children.

Students in the Colorado Northwestern Community College-Rifle dental hygenist program will work in the clinic on a rotating schedule.

Harmon said adults in need of services should call her office. She has a resource for such care that will be available until May.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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