“Another one bites the dust.” That’s not just a song by Queen; it’s also the status of another safety net dental clinic in the metropolitan Chicago area. The DuPage Community Clinic (DCC) closed the doors on its dental clinic June 30. (See our previous blog coverage of the clinic closing, "Dental Crisis in DuPage County Worsens"--Ed. note)
Is it closed because of a lack of volunteer dentists to take care of the underserved population in DuPage County? Absolutely not!
There are 60 volunteer dentists providing necessary oral healthcare to the working poor who are not eligible for any other program. These are men and women working to provide for their families and are still at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. They don’t have medical or dental insurance, and DCC was providing a safety net for these families to be able to seek medical and dental care. Now it only provides primary care.
Yes, the dental clinic needs money; all the health clinics need money. But money is not going to solve this problem.
Please don’t draw the wrong conclusion about the closing of the dental clinic. The DCC Board of Directors believed that the space occupied by the dental clinic could be better utilized to meet the medical needs of their patients.
It’s hard to argue that the incorporation of the dental space into the medical clinic will not have a positive impact on meeting the medical needs of the underserved. It will.
But the loss of the dental clinic will have a profound negative impact on the overall health of the patients.
They will have to seek dental treatment elsewhere. But where? The powers that be are minimizing the importance of oral health and diminishing the relationship between oral health and systemic disease: untreated oral infection can and does have catastrophic consequences.
Need I remind everyone of Deamonte Driver and the more recent death of a teenager in the Chicago area following dental treatment? And what about the relationships between periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease and low birth weight?
And let’s not forget the epidemic of dental caries in children.
Before they close a dental clinic, decision makers should consider the impact of untreated caries on a child’s ability to stay focused in school and learn while they are in pain. Decisions that are made today about the availability of dental care for the working poor and their children will have consequences now and for years to come.
The lack of dental clinics that serve the working poor is of great concern. Cook County has only four dental clinics to serve this population. The dentists that work in these clinics are dedicated individuals and do the best they can within the limits of the system in which they work. They do comprehensive dental care when they can – and when that’s not an option, they do their very best to take care of their patients’ needs. It’s not ideal, but it’s better then nothing.
The good news it that the situation may improve, thanks to the foresight of the Cook County Board. President Toni Preckwinkle and the County Board, even during this time of trimming budgets to the bone, have added $1 million to the county budget and earmarked it for oral healthcare. This is a great start when one considers that funding for dental care has been systematically reduced within the Cook County budget over the past few years. The addition of a specific dental/oral health line item was accomplished through the hard work of many. The relationship the late Mike Stablein developed with then-candidate Preckwinkle was a big help. And the Illinois State Dental Society’s Bridge to Healthy Smiles work with the Cook County Board helped the cause.
Also, through the efforts of Cheryl Watson-Lowry, in conjunction with the Chicago Dental Society’s Government Affairs Committee, we are educating our public officials on the importance of oral healthcare and the need for it to be an integral part of any healthcare policy that addresses access to care.
In Cook County, at least, we have an opportunity to make a difference now that the policymakers and the dental community are at least communicating with each other. The trick is to sustain this momentum.
"President’s Perspective" by Ian Elliott, DDS, was published in the July/August 2011 CDS Review. Have a comment on Dr. Elliott's column? Join our Facebook discussion.