New Bern, NC – INTRO - A traveling free dental clinic is well on the way to its goal of caring for over 6000 patients this year. George Olsen has more.
It's probably no surprise in tight economic times with high unemployment numbers that a clinic offering free dental care is especially busy.
"We are definitely seeing more patients at our clinics. You take the one like we have done in Wilmington which is five years now, one in Sylva which is four years now, all those clinics where we have a history, this year we're up about 25-35% on average over last year as far as the number of patients who are there."
Dr. Alec Parker is the executive director of the North Carolina Dental Society. The free clinics, known as North Carolina Missions of Mercy or N-C MOM have been an outreach effort of the Dental Society since the first clinics were held in 2003. Those people with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level guidelines are eligible for the free services. While a bad economy is stimulating the use of these free services, it comes on top of a long-held problem in the state regarding access to dental care.
"We have a situation in N-C where there is certainly a maldistribution of dental providers. It probably doesn't surprise you to know that eastern N-C especially east of I-95 and western N-C kind of draw a line at I-77, those areas are the most challenged. A lot of that distribution has to do with the fact the economic conditions in those regions is not robust enough to support a dental practice or another type of dental provider to be there."
That requires prospective patients in rural areas to have to travel to find care, and while Dr. Parker says there are 2300 dentists in the state providing care to Medicaid patients, the state's reimbursement rate to those practitioners makes doing so impractical from a business standpoint.
"If you look nationally, dental expenditures are about 5% of the total healthcare dollar yet in our state and in a lot of states the amount of funding out of the Medicaid program total is somewhere around 2% so we have been fighting for several years to try and get reimbursement rates to a level to where dentists can afford to provide the care in their office. At current reimbursement rates dentists are not even paying their costs in order to treat Medicaid patients."
Dr. Parker says the MOM clinics are "not a health care system by any sense of the imagination" but just an opportunity to take care of some of the more urgent needs in the population. Upping the reimbursement rate would, in Dr. Parker's opinion, help alleviate the need for free clinics to take care of urgent needs and put more of the population under regular dental care where urgent needs would be less likely to crop up.
"Every time in other states when there has been an increase in reimbursement rates up to the point where dentists can at least break even there has been an increase in access to care."
Dr. Parker acknowledges getting an increased reimbursement rate is unlikely as the state faces another year of filling budget shortfalls. That means the demand for the free clinics the Dental Society has seen this year will still be there for the foreseeable future
"We've already seen about 3100 patients this year and provided a little over $1.3 million in care this year alone and we've still got several clinics this year."
Toward meeting that future need, the MOM clinics recently unveiled a mobile x-ray bus which Dr. Parker says has been a "godsend" and the Dental Society has formed a partnership with the North Carolina Dental Laboratory Association so the MOM clinics can soon do repair work on partials and dentures. The next North Carolina Missions of Mercy clinic takes place July 16th and 17th at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Washington. Dr. Alec Parker is the executive director of the North Carolina Dental Society. I'm George Olsen.