Island Dental Clinic May Close by June

State Budget Cuts for Dental Care for Low Income Families Threaten to Shut Down Facility in June

By JOSHUA SABATINI

Acting Gov. Jane Swift's proposal to cut dental coverage for low-income citizens threatens to close the Martha's Vineyard Community Dental Clinic on June 30.

The clinic, in its 18th month of operation, provides care to more than 750 Island patients and has an additional 300 on the waiting list. Clinic secretary Ocean Tarter said she has had to stop accepting names on the waiting list and still receives more than a dozen calls a day from Islanders in need of affordable dental care.

The patients are 70 per cent adults and 30 per cent children. Prior to the clinic's opening, most had not received dental care in years. Close to 80 per cent of the patients are on MassHealth, about nine per cent are on a sliding fee scale based on weekly salary, and about one per cent are on commercial insurance. Any Massachusetts resident who comes to the clinic gets one free visit a year.

The need on the Island for dental care is overwhelming. The clinic recently saw an eight-year-old boy. He came in for dental care and the dentist discovered seven cavities. Three of his teeth were extracted.

There are horror stories of Islanders without the care the clinic can provide. One removed his own decaying tooth with a spoon. And there are stories of Islanders who reap the benefits of the clinic. Many leave with tears of joy.

Should acting Governor Swift's proposal go through, the state Medicaid program will no longer support checkups, cleanings, fillings, root canals and routine visits for low-income adults. Instead, the medical care will only pay for emergency visits and dentures. Only children will continue to have the full coverage.

This week, state Sen. Robert O'Leary urged the acting governor to reconsider her proposal to cut dental health coverage for MassHealth recipients.

In a statement released Wednesday, Senator O'Leary said, "I am urging her to resist this trend and her desire to cut preventative oral health services for our most needy citizens. If you think about this thing all the way through, you realize it merely defers the costs of later complications, and causes a surge in emergency room care that is a more costly and certainly less desirable method for providing dental services."

Open Monday through Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the clinic, with a three-member staff, operates out of wing three at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. The hospital allows the clinic to operate rent-free and also helped with purchasing some of the dental equipment.

The clinic, with two dental chairs, was developed by the executive director of the Geigher-Gibson Community Health Center in Dorchester, Brian Toomey, with the help of the Dukes County Health Council.

The clinic's dentist, Nash Todorovich, said: "There are quite a number of needy people on the Island, especially now with the present economic situation. Some people have neglected dental care for more than 20 years."

Dr. Todorovich said he has thought about expanding the service, but the acting governor's proposal was an unforeseen blow to any such plans.

Should the cut take place, only the patients who were seen before March 15 can receive care until June 30. On June 30, the clinic's grant runs out.

"After June 30 we will be closed permanently," said Miss Tarter. She said the clinic may apply for a grant to remain open to provide care for children and emergency and denture care for adults.

Miss Tarter said there are no dentists on the Island taking new patients, so there is nowhere else for the patients to go even if they could afford a private dentist's fee. The clinic, a godsend for so many needy Islanders, is being taken away from them.

"We are overbooked every day," said Miss Tarter. "We could stay open seven days a week for the next four years and we would still have a waiting list."

"I cannot tell you how many times a day we hear people say, ‘Thank God you are here,' " said dental assistant Debbie Simon.

The Division of Medical Assistance is the state agency that will attempt to change its regulations in accord with acting Governor Swift's policy change on oral health. The public can send comments to: Department of Medical Assistance, Office of the Commissioner, 600 Washington street, 5th Floor, Boston, MA 02111.