Program gives Head Start kids dental care

A community dental program at Lake Superior College is making it possible for kids in the Head Start program to see a dentist, and for many it will be the first time.

A community dental program at Lake Superior College is making it possible for kids in the Head Start program to see a dentist, and for many it will be the first time.

"A lot of Head Start kids are not getting dental screening, so we set aside two of our days, Oct. 1 and Nov. 5, to do Head Start screening for the kids," said Cindy Upton, dental hygiene clinic coordinator and director of the Lake Superior Community Dental Clinic at LSC.

Two years ago, LSC opened a community clinic that serves people with state health care plans who cannot find a dentist. Compensation for dentists who see patients on Minnesota health care plans tends to be below the cost of doing business, often limiting the amount of state health care patients a dentist can afford to take. In Duluth, dentists are often willing to help, but the need is much greater than the help available.

Two nights per month, area dentists volunteer their services to those without dentists or health care.

Upton said all of the appointments available for fall semester filled up in one week, which is not a surprise.


"Even last year, it was about a week and a half," Upton said. "Our fall semester books up pretty fast, and we had 16 seniors seeing one patient a day, meaning 450 patients a semester. The need is great, we've got a great bunch of patients."

By opening the community clinic to Head Start, LSC students and the dentists who volunteer their services at the clinic are helping the federally funded program for low income children meet part of the federal requirements.

Children in Head Start are required to have a physical exam, dental check up and current immunizations. While serving on the Head Start Health Advisory Committee, Upton helped make dental visits more of a reality for these children.

"It's a really great service for Head Start," said Nancy Gangeness, heath services coordinator at Head Start. "These clients have a difficult time finding dentists who will accept their insurance, so they go without, and because our program requires it, we really work hard with families to find dentists who will accept medical assistance."

Gangeness has already begun setting up appointments for Head Start families and said they are all excited to have this health care opportunity.

"I see it as a real community partnership that I hope we can keep going with," Gangeness said.

Dentists were recruited to volunteer in this program by members of Community Action Duluth and Churches United in Ministry (CHUM).

After surveying a number of low-income and homeless families in Duluth, Steve O'Neil, CHUM program director, realized the underestimated need for dental care.


For medical emergencies, O'Neil said, people can always go to the emergency room, but with a dental crisis, there is nothing to fall back on.

"I think all of us have experienced some terrible dental pain, usually through no fault of our own, and I think as a society we've got to say dental is a part of health care," said O'Neil. "It's just been pushed aside, and to me that's a crisis."

But the program needs more volunteers to assist with the need in Duluth.

"We have a handful of dentists that will see people in emergency situations, but those kinds of good people get overwhelmed," O'Neil said.

Erik Torch, social services manager at the Damiano Center, encountered the dental care crisis firsthand when a man with a very bad toothache mentioned to him he'd been so desperate at one point he'd contemplated pulling the tooth out himself.

After surveying 174 people over the age of 18 at the Damiano, Torch found about 73 percent had some form of public health insurance, and only 32 percent of those people had a dentist.

Torch said that data gets unclear when surveyors were asked if they ever had problems getting dentists.

"Only 31 percent said 'yes,' they've had problems getting dentists, but that could mean most people haven't even tried," Torch said. "For those who said 'yes,' they had a problem getting a dentists, a majority said they had been rejected by five or more dentists."


Torch also said 44 percent of those surveyed mentioned they were currently experiencing dental problems that they could not get treated.

"There are a variety of reasons that people aren't getting the dental care that they need," Torch said, "both the system failing to provide people access as well as people probably not seeing the importance or value of good oral hygiene."

Torch said working with LSC provides great services, but it is very limited.

"There is a much bigger need out there than the supply," Torch said.

Torch, along with O'Neil and members of Community Action Duluth, are taking this crisis to a state level and looking at ways to expand access to dental care in Duluth.

"One thing we're doing is building together a group of people who are low income or on health care because we want to try to do some advocacy efforts," Torch said. "One idea is we want the state legislature to help fund an emergency dental unit in an emergency room in Duluth."

Currently, if someone goes to the emergency room with a dental problem, doctors can only medicate the problem, not fix it.

Also, Torch said Lake Superior Community Health Center is in the beginning stages of opening a dental clinic in Superior to help ease the need for dental care.

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