West Virginia Health Right will set up a free mobile dental clinic for low-income adults in six West Virginia counties, the nonprofit announced Wednesday.
West Virginia has fewer dentists than most other states, and Mountain State adults are less likely to have visited a dentist in the past year, according to the American Dental Association.
Beginning July 17, a dentist from Marshall University, along with a dental hygienist, dental assistant and driver from Health Right, will bring the clinic to McDowell, Logan, Boone, Clay, Roane and Harrison counties, according to Angie Settle, chief executive officer of the Charleston-based free clinic.
The dental crew will visit each county twice a month to offer fillings, extractions and cleanings to uninsured and Medicaid-insured adults.
Volunteer dentists will conduct a few stops in June, before the official launch of the clinic on July 17, according to Settle.
“These are people who don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said, during a Wednesday morning news conference, noting that many low-income adults lack affordable childcare or can’t leave work to travel.
Numerous state lawmakers attended the news conference, held in the waiting room of the clinic, although none of them were involved in establishing the clinic.
In an interview after the news conference, Settle said Health Right chose locations based on community support, distance and existing dental services.
“It was mainly calling around, and I actually had to approach the community, the different partners, and say ‘Is this something you want?’ ” she said. “I didn’t want to go to any community where we weren’t wanted. I didn’t want to go anywhere where the local dentist didn’t want us, if they had one. I wanted to make sure the groundwork was laid in advance. The mission was to take care of people that couldn’t afford it otherwise, and that we would be wanted.”
“They give us a place to park, they give us internet access and they give us an electric plug,” she added.
Dr. Jason Roush, West Virginia state dental director, noted that adults ages 21 and over are not covered for any preventative oral health services under Medicaid.
“It is going to increase access to care specifically for those adults,” he added. “If you have a need for prevention or restorative care, there’s not a payment system currently in place for that.
“We have a good workforce in the state, when it comes to our dental providers,” he said. “Sometimes, there’s a distribution problem, as far as certain counties, but again, when you’re talking about adults, sometimes it’s hard.”
He said many providers do a significant amount of uncompensated care.
Dr. Michael Tupta, a volunteer dentist for Health Right who has a private practice in Charleston, said he regularly sees patients from other counties who travel hours to Charleston.
“This clinic has been a magnet for other places in the state,” he said.
According to West Virginia’s 2016-20 Oral Health State Plan, “Scientific reports have linked poor oral health to adverse general health outcomes.”
“The role of chronic low-grade periodontal [gum] infections in increasing the risk for heart and lung diseases, stroke, low birth weight and premature births is being studied,” the report stated. “A strong association between diabetes and periodontal infection has been observed.”
“People kind of put it on the back burner but, really, if your mouth is not healthy, your body is not healthy,” Tupta said. “It’s a great petri dish for growing bacteria.”
Dr. Raj Khanna, chairman of Marshall University’s department of dentistry, oral and maxillofacial surgery, said oral health is “impacting pretty much every aspect of medicine” and “more and more, we realize there’s a need to educate the people, educate the providers and, more than that, provide care to them.”
“Once you educate them, you see the culture change,” he said.
According to the 2016-20 oral health plan, in adults ages 55-64, about 43 percent have lost six or more teeth from dental decay or gum disease. In 2012, 22 percent of adults had not visited a dentist in more than five years and 40 percent of adults had some type of dental coverage, according to the report.
Nearly half of the counties had less than six practicing dentists, and two out of five dentists planned to retire within the next 10 years, according to the report.
The report states that low access to care is due “to a variety of complex factors, especially in rural areas; not enough providers willing to accept people on medical assistance due to low reimbursement rates; and a gap in affordable insurance options.”
“West Virginia is one of the states where oral health care is neglected,” Khanna said, “so there’s a big need, partly because of the culture, partly also financially, and partly it’s because of lack of access. People live out in these rural communities and nobody wants to go practice there, so they don’t have dental practices. The nearest practice may be a hundred miles away.”
According to an ADA fact sheet, in 2013, West Virginia had 48 dentists per 100,000 people in the population, compared to 60.5 dentists per 100,000 people in the population nationwide. Also in 2013, about 51 percent of West Virginia adults had visited a dentist in the previous 12 months, compared to 59 percent nationwide.
The Benedum Foundation, the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, the Logan Healthcare Foundation, the Bernard McDonough Foundation and Sisters Health Foundation are among the funders for the clinic. The first year will cost $524,000, according to a release.
For uninsured patients to qualify, income must be at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, according to a brochure. Patients must provide a copy of their tax return or proof that they don’t have to file taxes before the appointment. For a single-person household, the maximum income is $29,700. For a four-person household, the maximum income is $60,750.
For more information, call the following people: Cindy at Community Care of West Virginia in Clay County, 304-587-7301; Trella at Health Access in Harrison County, 304-622-2708; Teresa, mobile dental coordinator for West Virginia Health Right in Roane and McDowell counties, 304-414-5944; Louis or Megan at Coalfield Health Center in Logan County, 304-855-1200; the referral clerk at Boone Memorial Hospital in Boone County, 304-369-1230.