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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Dental clinic offers affordable relief for Medicaid users, uninsured

Dental hygienist Stacy McKay, left, assists volunteer dentist Dr. Amir Ganji as he performs an exam on a patient who has a toothache on Dec. 10 at the IDEA Clinic at the Northeast Community Center. (Colin Mulvany)

The quiet at the Riverstone Family Dental Clinic on a recent Monday morning was like the quiet before a storm.

At least that’s what the people behind the IDEA Clinic, located at Riverstone Family Health Center at the Northeast Community Center, were hoping.

“There will be more patients this afternoon,” said Dr. John Wesley, IDEA Clinic director. “But, yes, we need to get some cheeks in the seats.”

IDEA stands for Inland Dental Expanded Access Clinic, a clinic for uninsured or underinsured patients staffed by volunteer dentists, and it opens this month. Wesley has been there since November, and the clinic is so new it still smells more like paint than dental office.

“We have 16 dental chairs here, four of which are run by the IDEA clinic,” Wesley said. Riverstone Family Health Center is part of the Yakima Valley Farm Workers network of clinics. It opened last January.

The IDEA Clinic is a project of the Spokane District Dental Society Foundation, and it offers comprehensive dental care on a sliding fee scale. It also offers access to dental specialists like oral surgeons.

“That’s a biggie. For people on Medicaid, it’s very difficult to get access to specialists,” Wesley said. “Typically, they go to the ER if they have a dental emergency. The ER offers them painkillers and antibiotics and sends them home. That is it.”

Wesley said many Medicaid patients can’t afford to fill two prescriptions so they choose the painkiller because it will let them function. That leaves the infection untreated, potentially causing a more dangerous health problem.

“As taxpayers we are on the hook for the $1,400 the ER visit costs and the patient often returns to the ER several times, because they have nowhere else to go,” Wesley said. “If the patient came in here treatment would cost, maybe, $300 instead.”

Medicaid covers one X-ray, one limited exam and one tooth extraction during a visit, but Wesley points out that the IDEA Clinic is not just about pulling teeth.

“We hope we can offer comprehensive care and that the sliding fee scale will let people take some responsibility for their own dental health,” he said. “It can be very difficult to find a dentist who will accept Medicaid.”

There are more than 370 members of the dental society and Wesley said the clinic’s goal is to have every dentist volunteer one day a year.

“That would cover the year for us,” Wesley said. “You can’t do something like this if you don’t have the support of the dental society and we do to the extreme. It’s great.”

The IDEA Clinic is funded by the fees patients pay and by donations and volunteer hours given by members of the dental society. It has also received grants from, among others, the Murdock Foundation, Empire Health Foundation and local businesses such as Aurum Group Dental Laboratory.

The IDEA Clinic has the potential to treat 4,000 patients a year, with a focus on adult Medicaid dental users. More than 12,000 individuals fall into that category in Spokane County, and statistics compiled by the Spokane Regional Health District show that oral health-related visits to local emergency rooms are up by more than 100 percent over the past five years.

Wesley said badly decayed or missing teeth are not only painful, but also sometimes keep people from getting jobs.

“Some of the people we have already seen are in so much pain, I don’t know how they do it,” said Wesley. “They do it because they don’t have a choice. Maybe we can help with that.”