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Nonprofit dental clinic serves uninsured in Concord

Dr. Roland Bryan and Kim Jamison, a dental assistant in training, work on patient Chris Adams while U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen toured Saving People's Smile Dental Center in Concord on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. The clinic is a non-profit providing children and adults low-cost preventive education and dental care.

(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

Dr. Roland Bryan and Kim Jamison, a dental assistant in training, work on patient Chris Adams while U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen toured Saving People's Smile Dental Center in Concord on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. The clinic is a non-profit providing children and adults low-cost preventive education and dental care. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

Who hugs their dentist? Nobody, that’s who, according to what Laura Stewart saw in decades as a dental assistant. She never saw a patient hug the doctor at the end of a procedure, until this year.

Since March, Stewart has worked for Saving People’s Smile Dental Center, a nonprofit clinic on Pleasant Street established by three retired dentists looking to give back to a part of the population in need of dental care.

“When I go home at night, I have a whole different feeling about my day than I used to have, because I know I made a difference for people,” she said. “The patients know it, too, because they know it’s a nonprofit, they know the money isn’t just going to buy a dentist a Porsche.”

Money taken in by the clinic is certainly not going to buy a new car for Earle Simpson, the retired dentist and Concord native who created the clinic as a way to give back after a successful career. He sold his private dental practice and reinvested much of the proceeds to found and fund Saving People’s Smile, he said.

The idea came to him in 2008 as he celebrated his 30th anniversary of graduating from St. Paul’s School. When he suggested a dental clinic for under-served populations in Concord, his classmates agreed to add their support for the endeavor in start-up costs and for years to come. In tribute, he made sure the name of the clinic had the same initials as their alma mater, SPS.

Their support, and $15,000 from the Northeast Delta Dental Foundation, set the clinic up with three examination chairs and an X-ray machine. Now, he’s looking at expanding in the coming year, with help from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who visited the clinic yesterday.

Since opening in March, Saving People’s Smile has seen almost 500 patients,

Stewart said. Some of the people come from as far away as Berlin or Gorham, and many are uninsured, or insured through Medicaid and aren’t able to get dental services at private for-profit practices.

There are 17 nonprofit dental clinics in the state, but the only other one in Concord, at Concord Hospital, isn’t accepting new patients. They’ve been the largest referral provider for the new clinic, Stewart said.

Saving People’s Smile charges nominal fees for many services: $60 for an extraction that could cost hundreds of dollars elsewhere for someone without insurance, Simpson said.

“It’s been fun,” said Roland Bryan Sr., a retired dentist from Bedford who helps staff the clinic. “When they stand up after and shake your hand and say ‘thank you,’ that’s worth more than money.”

“We want to offer people who need a dental home comprehensive dental care. . . . It means anything you want it to mean,” Simpson said. “If you want a root canal, if you want a cleaning, if you want partial dentures, we’ll do it.”

But while the clinic will offer reduced rates to uninsured patients or those who require services beyond what Medicaid pays for, “it’s a two-way street,” Simpson said.

“You have to commit to take care of your mouth, and if somebody is committed we will help them,” he said.

That could also help make programs to improve children’s oral health more effective, he said.

Many dental programs are available for children, including an Easter Seals program where Simpson now works, and sealant programs that travel to schools so parents can sign up to have their children served without having to take time off from work. But that doesn’t address one of the biggest factors in kids’ oral health, their role models, Simpson said.

Kids are more likely to brush and floss, and avoid major dental problems, if their parents practice good oral hygiene at home. And their parents are more likely to brush and floss if they get regular dental care, he said.

But while Medicaid offers broad coverage for children’s dental health, it covers only exams and extractions for adults, not regular preventive care.

“It amazes me how many adults break a tooth, and if it doesn’t hurt, they won’t get it fixed. We see a lot of individuals when the abscesses and the pain start,” Simpson said. “If a child breaks a tooth, they’ll rush to get it fixed. It’s human nature that they don’t prioritize their own health as much as they do their children and on top of that, the state support isn’t there.”

And while his classmates from St. Paul’s have pledged support, some for as long as five years, he has his eye on expansion: a theater area where kids and adults can watch videos explaining what will happen during the procedure they’re advised to have, and a van to travel to local schools with high numbers of low-income students.

He’d also like to create a museum of dental history in New Hampshire and build partnerships with dental schools across New England to bring graduates to under-served areas like the North Country.

Shaheen told the staff at the clinic she’ll look into grants they might be able to apply for and pledged to support their efforts.

Andrea Jones said she turned to the clinic for the low-cost care while she’s in school, training to be a dental assistant. She loves the work so much she came in to shadow Stewart in between semesters.

With seven children, herself and her husband in need of regular dental care, the reduced rates helped make sure everyone gets what they need for good health, she said.

And spending more time in the clinic confirmed for her that the job is one she can’t wait to start.

To reach Saving People's Smiles, call 219-0770.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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