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Charly Haley, Published December 01 2012

Dental clinic fills low-income need

After working all day at their own practices, some local dentists aren’t done yet.

The dentists volunteer with the Red River Valley Dental Access Project, a nonprofit that provides dental care to low-income or uninsured patients.

“We treat patients that have no other access to care when they’re in pain to try and take them out of pain,” said Dr. Bryan Seeley, volunteer and president of the Dental Access Project’s board of directors.

Since opening in 2002, the nonprofit has treated more than 10,000 patients, said Seeley, whose own practice is in West Fargo.

Every Tuesday and one Thursday each month the clinic opens its doors in Moorhead at the Clay County Family Service Center, which donates its facility to the Red River Valley Dental Access Project.

The clinic has some paid staff, including one staff dentist. Volunteers round out the rest of the help.

“The only reason this has continued would be our volunteers,” Seeley said.

Each volunteer dentist typically works four or five nights a year. In addition to 45 volunteer dentists, local oral surgeons and pediatric dentists are on call in case a patient’s condition needs more help than what can be offered at the clinic, Seeley said.

Patients of Red River Valley Dental Access are charged a $20 fee for treatment, regardless of the severity of the situation.

The clinic doesn’t bill to insurance, although some of its patients are on Medicaid or other government support.

The clinic takes about 16 to 20 patients per night. Dr. Wayne Christianson, a clinic volunteer and retired Moorhead dentist, said 16 is the target number, but volunteers try not to turn away patients in very urgent condition.

The program focuses on immediate treatment of pain. Seeley said the majority of the clinic’s patients need a tooth extracted.

That’s what patient Brent LaFrance, 25, of Fargo, had done earlier this month.

“It had a really bad infection. The tooth had pretty much rotted away,” LaFrance said.

He chose Red River Valley Dental Access, he said, because he’s on Medicaid and it was difficult for him to get treatment anywhere else.

The Red River Valley Dental Access Project started because local dentists and health care workers noticed accessing dental care was difficult for low-income patients.

“Patients that couldn’t find the dental help elsewhere that were ending up in emergency rooms because they didn’t have anywhere else to go,” Seeley said.

Dental access isn’t just difficult in this region; it’s a problem nationwide. According to the American Dental Association, only 38.6 percent of the U.S. population visited a general practice dentist in 2009 because of difficulties accessing dental care. The National Center for Health Statistics reported that in 2008, one in four Americans under age 65 didn’t have any dental insurance.

The Red River Valley project is funded by grants and donations.

“Dakota Medical Foundation has probably been our No. 1 supporter as far as keeping us financially where we can actually keep this thing up and running,” Seeley said.

Christianson said government reimbursement to private practice dentists treating patients on Medicaid or other support didn’t allow dentists to break even 35 years ago when he started his practice in Moorhead, and the repayment rates have been decreasing since then.

“If you treated a bunch of people in that situation, you would go out of business, because you can’t afford to lose that money,” Christianson said.

Seeley said Red River Valley Dental Access’ number of patients has grown every year. Although the clinic’s sign-up sheet goes up at 4 p.m., patients often arrive hours beforehand to ensure they will be treated.

Sue Olson, 45, drove from Wahpeton, N.D., and arrived three hours before the clinic opened to make sure she could have her tooth extracted.

Olson doesn’t have dental insurance and visited the clinic once before for a temporary filling.

“When you’re in a lot of pain and you don’t have the money to get that taken care of, it means a lot,” Olson said. “I’m just very appreciative of this.”

Although it is a few extra hours of work for the dentists, Seeley and Christianson said the volunteers enjoy it.

“What makes it fun is the dentists who volunteer there are doing it for the right reasons,” Christianson said.

If you go

What: Red River Valley Dental Access Project

When: Every Tuesday from 5:30 to 7:45 p.m. and the third Thursday of each month; sign-up starts at 4 p.m., but most patients arrive earlier because it’s first come, first served.

Where: Clay County Family Service Center, 715 11th St. N., Moorhead

Info: Open to patients who are low-income or uninsured. There is no residency requirement. Patients who need interpreters must bring their own.

Cost: $20

For more information: Call (701) 364-5364 or go online to www.rrdentalaccess.com

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311