The Harford County Health Department will open a dental clinic early next year that will provide care for some of the 7,000 children who are eligible for medical assistance but have little access to a dentist.
The number of children receiving medical assistance has increased by 238 percent since 2000 and there could be many other eligible youths who are not enrolled in the program, said Dr. Andrew Bernstein, Harford County's health officer.
"There is a real need for this service," Bernstein said. "Our assessment shows less than five percent of dental providers accept medical assistance. So, even though kids are eligible, they can't find a dentist."
A 2004 survey of the county's Headstart children found 42 percent were in need of dental care, he said.
A $435,000 grant from the Maryland Community Health Resources Commission, a state agency that addresses shortages in health care, will allow the county to lease and operate a 1,100-square-foot space in the Edgewood Village Shopping Center on Hanson Road. It will serve children on medical assistance initially and eventually expand to adults. Another $200,000 from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has helped purchase equipment.
Dr. Ronald Kushner, a retired Churchville dentist who will be a consultant to the clinic, said he has pushed for a clinic since he began practicing in the county 30 years ago.
"We anticipate that there are many school-age children who have never been to a dentist," he said. "There is also a great need for children who are not yet in school."
The case of Deamonte Driver, the 12-year-old Prince George's boy who died after a tooth infection spread to his brain, "totally galvanized my efforts," Kushner said.
Now that the county has funding, a location and a lease, the project can proceed as soon as building renovations are done.
The storefront space, near the Edgewood library, will operate 40 hours a week. The clinic will be furnished with new equipment.
"Just because these patients can't afford care does not mean the clinic has to look depressing," Kushner said.
Bernstein wants it to be inviting for children, possibly by using video monitors to divert jittery patients. Administrators will use the library and several local schools to promote the clinic, he said.
It will open with two dental chairs and will likely add a third as the number of patients rises. The practice will provide preventive care, operative dentistry, restoration and extractions.
Kushner has lined up several dentists willing to accept referrals from the clinic for patients who need more specialized care. He also has a list of those in other areas of the county who are willing to treat uninsured patients.
"We have many dentists in Harford and Cecil counties who are willing to support us," he said.
The clinic will expand to treat adults, including those who are uninsured, Bernstein said.