When it came time for dental hygiene student Dana Tasche to be tested on Friday, her professors at Eastern Washington University’s Riverpoint Campus found some teeth that really needed work.
There is no shortage of patients to choose from at the EWU Dental Hygiene Clinic, which maintains the oral health of nearly of 6,700 low-income patients a year.
About 30 percent of the clinic’s patients are on Medicaid, the federal and state health insurance plan for low-income residents. Most of the others are uninsured and pay out of pocket – if they can pay at all.
“We are the safety net,” dental hygiene professor Janet Nord said. “The majority of dentists (in private practice) do not take many Medicaid patients.”
So when the state Department of Social and Health Services proposed eliminating nonemergency adult dental services to save about $14.6 million, it raised alarms. The federal portion of state Medicaid-covered dental services is more than $16 million.
Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed restoring adult dental services in her alternative budget as lawmakers endeavor to make up a $2.6 billion revenue shortfall this biennium.
The clinic receives about $350,000 a year, which helps lower the fees it charges for services, said Rebecca Stolberg, chairwoman of EWU’s dental hygiene department.
“Our fees are 50 to 75 percent less than private dental offices,” Stolberg said.
The clinic charges from $37 to $150 for a cleaning and $45 to $95 for a filling. The clinic has 46 chairs, and 30 students monitored by faculty members are working at any given time. Each patient is checked out by faculty before leaving the clinic.
Oral health problems are linked to systemic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and low birth rates. Losing the clinic would significantly affect the community and put even more pressure on hospital emergency rooms, those involved with the clinic say.
“It would just pull the rug completely out from under their feet,” Nord said of the clinic’s low-income and homeless patients.
The Community Health Association of Spokane clinics and Spokane Falls Family Clinic also provide dental services for their primary care patients.
The EWU clinic, at 310 N. Riverpoint Blvd., offers exams, fillings, X-rays and cleanings, as well as referrals for patients who need more extensive treatment.
On Friday, Tasche, a third-year dental hygiene student who graduated from Cedar Park Christian High School in Bothell, Wash., in 2004, waited while two faculty members conferred about the cleaning she performed on a Medicaid patient.
Kim Te, a 26-year-old Burmese refugee, had come to the clinic with her husband. Neither had ever had their teeth cleaned, Tasche said.
The couple offered a unique challenge, Tasche said, because it is the custom in Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, to chew betel nut, a combination of areca nut and the betel leaf. The natural stimulant leaves a black residue on teeth.
Tasche said she hopes to return to Bothell as a dental hygienist and possibly pursue her dental degree at the University of Washington.