SmileHealthy takes up dental care challenge

By Scott Anderson and Nancy Greenwalt

With the nation's health care attention focused on the implementation of health care reform, people have become more aware of the glaring holes in health care service to many of our citizens. A similar, less discussed, gap exists when it comes to dental care services.

Medicare, the federal health insurance program that covers most people age 65 and older, doesn't cover taking care of your teeth. The state-run Medicaid program reduced benefits last summer so that the only covered procedure for qualified adults is an emergency extraction. Some low-income children qualify for limited dental services under Medicaid but many children come from homes with family incomes that don't qualify for Medicaid and simply cannot afford dental care in a private office.

For many in our community a toothache results in a trip to the emergency room for pain medication, but definitive dental treatment isn't available in an emergency room.

One of the saddest things is that dental decay and gum disease are diseases that are preventable with proper preventive care and education.

In Champaign County, SmileHealthy, a program of Promise Healthcare, has mobilized to try to fill some of these gaps in dental services. SmileHealthy operates mobile school sealant and restorative programs as well as the Head Start dental clinics in Rantoul and Savoy.

The program serves about 2,000 patients a year with these mobile services. Ninety percent of their patients are children. SmileHealthy works with the dental society and CUPHD on Give Kids A Smile day and cooperated with the Parkland hygiene department during their recent day of free dentistry at Parkland College in May.

SmileHealthy Dental Center is a full-time dental clinic housed at Frances Nelson, 819 Bloomington Road, Champaign. The dental center also serves over 2,000 patients annually. Most of these patients are adults though the dental center hopes to expand the number of children served in the coming year.

The SmileHealthy Dental Center serves a patient base that is approximately 35 percent Medicaid and 65 percent low-income uninsured. Co-payments for service run between $20-$60 per visit, but that doesn't come close to covering the cost of providing the services.

The services provided by SmileHealthy at the mobile clinics and at the dental center are partially supported by a county board of health grant and some private foundation grants but are largely dependent on community support. Large contributions from Carle Foundation Hospital, Jimmy John Liautaud, Presence Covenant Medical Center, the United Way of Champaign County, and the Illinois Children's Healthcare Foundation have helped provide some of the financial support needed to fund the programs and to improve access to dental health care for the underserved in our community.

The national focus on the implementation of health care reform is understandable, but we want to also draw attention to the challenges those in our community face when it comes to obtaining dental care.

SmileHealthy has taken up this challenge and now serves over 4,000 patients a year. We hope the community will see value in this endeavor and continue their support.

Scott Anderson, DDS, is the board president at Promise Healthcare in Champaign. Nancy Greenwalt is the executive director of Promise Healthcare.

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