Filling a need

Dental clinic overwhelmed with patients

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People doubted Debi Harmon when she talked about the desperate need for dental care for uninsured youths. But, they're listening now, said Harmon, director of the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition.

The organization opened a nonprofit clinic, 485 Yampa Ave., four months ago. The clinic serves 40 to 50 children a week.

"I can't even communicate what we've seen," Harmon said.

Clinic staff members are no longer surprised to see rotting teeth, infected gums and excessive plaque build-up among their patients, who are younger than 21.

Those outside the clinic are surprised.

"You don't realize how big some of the dental problems are in this valley until you work in this clinic," said Jim McCreight, a Craig dentist who has volunteered at the clinic. "There are just so many patients who need help."

Clinic hygienists in August and September screened kindergarten through eighth-graders for dental problems. Of the 1,400 screened, 215 showed visible signs of tooth decay.

Getting to the root

The clinic has served 538 patients since August.

"Too many people think you only go to the dentist if it hurts," said Harmon, who thinks education is critical to eliminating the problem. "We really focus on prevention here."

Without changing children's habits and parents' beliefs, there is no solution, she said.

"You don't just start fixing the tooth," McCreight said. "You have to start with education, because if you don't, you don't get to the root of the problem."

The clinic's hygienists perform dental screenings in the fall and Harmon focuses on prevention in February.

"Kids who come in here generally have parents with the same dental problems," Harmon said. "Dental care just isn't a priority unless it's an emergency."

Silent epidemic

The U.S. Surgeon General calls dental decay "the silent epidemic" and said 51 million school hours are lost each year for oral health reasons.

Harmon said some patients respond to oral hygiene lessons as if it's the first time they've heard them. Many don't own toothbrushes.

"That tells me we need to get into the schools more and we need to educate more," she said.

The clinic is open five days a week. Fees are based on a sliding scale for Medicaid and Colorado Health Plan Plus clients as well as the uninsured.

Harmon said the demand for services, as well as the cost to provide them, has driven the clinic to implement a strict no-show policy.

Missing an appointment makes a patient ineligible for care for six months.

The clinic serves a five-county area and Harmon said patients from Routt and Rio Blanco counties take advantage of the clinic's central location. It is one of only three non-profit clinics on the Western Slope.

The clinic is funded with grants -- the largest of which will help pay for staffing through 2007. After that, Harmon expects the clinic to be a little more self-sufficient, although never completely.

"We will always have to have grant dollars, but our projections show reimbursements from Medicaid, Children's Health Plan Plus and fees growing and growing," Harmon said.

The dental coalition also sponsors an annual golf tournament. Tournament proceeds go to a patient assistance fund and are used for emergency situations for patients unable to pay even a reduced fee.

The clinic's annual budget is about $400,000.

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