Our opinion: A reason to smile

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When the anecdotal and empirical data showed that Windham County was short on dentists and long on need, especially for persons with limited or no insurance, the United Way and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital got to work.

The result, as reported in the Brattleboro Reformer last week, is the Windham County Dental Center on the corner of Belmont Road and Canal Street in Brattleboro.

Starting May 21, the office will be staffed five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a practice manager, a hygienist, an expanded function assistant and a dental assistant. And Dr. Robert Ruhl, of Deerfield Valley Dental Care in Wilmington, will be in the office two days per week.

That kind of result doesn't come about by accident.

It takes people who care about their community to recognize need, take the time to study and understand the problem, and work together to find solutions.

It takes folks who are willing to do the hard work of lining up funding sources and in-kind donations to make those solutions a reality.

And then people need to step up.

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Take Debbie Cloutier, for example. We heard Cloutier, the practice manager for Windham County Dental Center, was essential to advancing the planned opening date from 2020 to this May.

"I was absolutely attracted by the challenge of making this work," Cloutier told the Reformer's Bob Audette. "I have experience working with underprivileged children in pediatric dentistry. To find a center that was going to serve the community was where I wanted to be."

If you've ever had a toothache, then you know it can command your attention to the exclusion of everything else. For area residents who have dental health issues and not enough insurance to pay for the cost of care, that extra effort is going to make a big difference.

There's still more to do. Eilidh Pederson, BMH's vice president of Medical Group Management and Population Health, told us that according to a recent community health needs assessment conducted by the hospital, there are about 5,000 adults in Windham County who don't have a regular dental care provider. Those folks are going to the emergency room when the need for care can no longer be ignored — and the ER is not the right place for comprehensive dental care.

We know from health data we reported last month that Bennington County has 1,230 people per dentist, and that Windham County has 1,480 residents per dentist. And we know from Ruhl that Medicare reimburses only 50 cents on the dollar for dental services and has a limit of $510 per year for each patient.

"That's below the cost of care," Ruhl said. "Every time somebody is in your chair who is a Medicaid recipient, you're not just making no profit, you're not covering costs. While many dentists get a bad name for not accepting Medicaid recipients, the truth is, they simply can't afford to accept them."

So as we hail the participants in the Windham County project for making dental care available to the needy, we also hope that the state can increase the reimbursement. We know that preventative care is money well-spent, because it's almost always less expensive than more serious problems that result from a lack of regular care.

As Sen. Becca Balint said: "We know that too many Vermonters suffer needlessly because they are not able to see a dentist. This needs to change."


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