Tonawanda News

September 3, 2013

Dental clinic provides oral care to patients in need

By Paul Lane
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Health officials in Niagara Falls have made it their mission to help bring smiles — bright, shining smiles — to adults in the region who are in need.

The Mount St. Mary’s Neighborhood Health Center on Ninth Street opened an adult dental clinic this past spring. The clinic uses private, anonymous grant funding to help adults without insurance get oral care.

The idea for the dental clinic came about after staff surveyed patients at the health center, which has met other medical needs since 2010. The survey found 95 percent of patients had gone at least 15 years without dental care. By offering these services, clinic officials hope to improve patients’ physical health and mental state of being.

“These are people in need,” said Sister Grace Marie Dunn, vice president of mission integration for St. Mary’s. “One man hadn’t seen his family for years because his teeth were so bad. That afternoon after coming to the clinic, he went to see them.”

Niagara Falls resident Cynthia Socko is one of about 80 people to utilize the dental clinic thus far. She said going there yielded the result Dunn and her co-workers hoped for.

“Before I went to the dental clinic, I was not able to enjoy my meals. I did not even like to be around people because of my teeth,” she said. “Today, I am smiling, and my friends and family are overwhelmed. I can eat everything, and my teeth look great.”

Patients have to meet income and insurance requirements, Dunn said. They pay what they can as a co-pay, which can be as little as $5.

“We feel that gives them more dignity, to say they’re paying a little bit,” she said. “They just can’t afford to pay the normal $25 co-pay they might be charged elsewhere.”

One patient, Niagara Falls resident Gerald Stevens, saved up several hundred dollars toward his medical care. Once he learned of the clinic, he used that money toward his procedure, which ran well more than $1,000.

“My teeth have been bad for more than 10 years, and they keep getting worse,” he said. “It was embarrassing to go out to meet and talk to people since my teeth were so bad.”

Such social anxiety can force someone to finally go to the dentist, but the fear of what will happen there compels many others to keep postponing work. Niagara Falls Robert Brown, for one, is glad he overcame that apprehension.

Brown moved to Western New York from Brooklyn about eight months ago. The clinic was recommended to him by a local food pantry. The pain of a toothache finally forced him to take action.

In New York City, Brown made the roughly hour-long commute to Manhattan to find dental care. He won’t have such an arduous journey should he need follow-up care in his new home.

“It’s a scary place to go to, to go to the dentist, so if the people there aren’t pleasant, it makes it that much harder to go back to,” he said. “It’s a pleasant place to go to. They make you feel comfortable. It seems like they go out of their way to make you feel welcome.”

Respect is what patients like Brown deserve, Dunn said, and the hope is to continue giving it out indefinitely. But it appears to be something that’s harder to find, as is adequate care. Dunn said many resources are in place to help pediatric dental patients, but those services disappear once patients reach adulthood.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System found 12.4 percent of Niagara County adults have no health insurance. And the cost of dental care — for those with and without insurance — is a barrier preventing 83.1 percent of Niagara County adults from going to the dentist, at least as much as they should (two visits per year are recommended).

So Dunn hopes to continue expanding the clinic to meet more people’s needs. Two dentists offer their services now, and she hopes to recruit other area dentists to help out pro bono, even if with only one or two patients a year. More grant funding is being sought, meanwhile, to help cover the costs of even more patients.

That would suit patients like Brown just fine.

“Any time I need something done, I would definitely go there,” he said of the clinic. It was quick, and it was good, and it was fast. I would say it’s fantastic.”