Filling an urgent need

Dentistry: Using state and private grants, and dentists who volunteer their time, Howard County provides nearly free oral health services for a lucky few.

August 14, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Six-year-old Katelynn Caldwell grinds her teeth so hard in her sleep that she needs expensive protective caps her young parents cannot afford.

On a recent day, she sat quietly reading The Cat in the Hat as she and her mother waited to see a dentist at the Howard County Health Department's dental clinic in Ellicott City, which offers a program providing free dental care to some who are otherwise unable to afford it.

Katelynn's treatment that day would have cost $375 at full price, clinic officials said, but Katelynn's mother, Melissa, 24, paid a token $2. Melissa Caldwell works at Howard County's Head Start program, and her husband works for a vehicle-oil-change business; she said they cannot afford the multiple treatments Katelynn needs.

"I don't know what I would do if I didn't know of this place. I'd probably just have to have her [baby] teeth fall out," her mother said.

Combining a $50,000 state grant, an equal amount from the Horizon Foundation, and $20,000 in fees from the state's health insurance program for children, the county is providing free oral health services for a lucky few.

The state appropriated $523,000 for two years of dental services and equipment purchases statewide this fiscal year, according to John Hammond, a spokesman for the state Health Department. The money is to cover more than 1,000 pediatric and 600 adult visits a year in 20 jurisdictions.

Mindy Braden, oral health director for the Howard County Health Department, said the program began three years ago and "has expanded by leaps and bounds."

The two small treatment rooms in the Normandy Shopping Center clinic that typically serve 200 patients a month -- mainly children -- are due to be joined soon by three larger ones. Dentists who volunteer their time and skills are joined by two pediatric fellows from the University of Maryland Dental School in Baltimore, which also operates a clinic for people who cannot pay.

Braden said the clinic serves children from low-income homes, up to age 21, pregnant women and adults with chronic illnesses referred by the Health Alliance, a free clinic in Columbia. Nearly 60 percent of those served are Spanish speakers, Braden said.

"It's fabulous because there's absolutely no alternative in Howard County," said Pamela Mack, director of the alliance clinic.

Dr. Penny E. Borenstein, the county health officer, said federal government estimates are that for every person without general medical insurance, there are three people without dental insurance. In Howard County, that would mean about 45,000 people -- often children -- without access to dental care.

"It is really a welcome relief for those who have nowhere else to turn," she said, adding that the volunteer spirit among county dentists also has been an inspiration.

Ignoring dental care can have wider health implications, said Braden and Borenstein -- including low birth weight in newborns, infections, heart disease and diabetes.

Braden said the department distributes information at county schools and programs, such as Head Start, which is where the Caldwells heard about it.

Appointments must be scheduled weeks in advance, but dental emergencies are treated quickly, at least to temporarily relieve pain, Braden said.

Dr. Ernie England, president of the Howard County Dental Association and a volunteer at the clinic, said he goes one Wednesday each month -- his weekly day off.

"There's a little bit more rampant decay. More than in a general practice. Most of them have never been to a dentist," he said of his clinic patients. He does not mind giving up a day off because "we have to use the education we receive to help people. I feel good about helping people."

On Thursday, hygienist Traci McNair and pediatric fellow Dr. Chris VanDeven were treating a parade of children at the clinic.

Joyce Asamoah-Frimpong, a native of Ghana, brought her four children, Emmanuel, 10, Debora, 9, Esther, 7 and Joshua, 4, for a checkup.

Only Emmanuel has ever had a cavity, she said, and she insists the children brush and floss their teeth morning and night -- and sometimes at midday, too.

"I'm OK, so I don't come," she said, referring to her own lack of professional dental care. Raising four children on her husband's earnings from a cab company does not permit regular visits for herself, she said.

Braden said full price for a routine dental checkup and cleaning is $169. Maryland's insurance program for children pays $73 instead.

The children seemed mainly interested in which small toy each received as a prize after their examinations. They were quiet, cooperative and unafraid -- even little Joshua.

Norma Torres of North Laurel brought her son, Alan, 9, for a visit. She learned about the program at his school, Laurel Woods Elementary, she said.

Torres, originally from Argentina, and her husband, who works is a furniture finisher, have no dental insurance. If she had to pay out of pocket, she said through an interpreter, it would affect the family's ability to buy food and pay the rent.

"The price is right," she said.

Dental clinic

Information about the Howard County Health Department's dental clinic: 410-313-5152.

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