By Gordon Dritschilo
A federal grant will help bring two new dentist chairs to Rutland County and could bring a transportation center into Bennington's downtown.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., announced the $95,000 grant Tuesday from the light blue couch in the waiting room of the Park Street Clinic in Rutland. Later in the day, Sanders was in Bennington to announce $328,300 for a transportation center there.
The earmark for Bennington would allow the town to consider building a facility that would serve as a hub for several methods of transportation such as buses and taxis as well as pedestrian and bicycle trails. However, Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the town would need to find public and private partners to help build the facility.
Hurd said the town was looking at three downtown locations which could be suitable on South Street, North and Depot streets and Pleasant Street but no agreements have been formalized yet.
"We're still quite a way from putting a shovel in the ground," he said.
Bennington would most likely offer a parking area as its greatest contribution to the project. Hurd said partners could include Jack Appelman's company, which has several projects built or in construction downtown, or the Green Mountain Community Network, which already operates buses in Bennington County.
Although Hurd said the facility is probably at least two years away, he said Sanders' office is working with the town to keep it moving forward, which is likely to keep the earmark available until construction can be scheduled.
In Rutland, the Park Street Clinic (on Grove Street, but still named for its original location) houses operations for Park Street Health Share and Community Health Centers of the Rutland Region.
Grant Whitmer, executive director of CHCRR, said the money will help expand the facility's dental suite from three chairs to five. He said they did not yet know how much it would actually cost or whether it will require an addition to the building or internal reconfiguration.
"The dentists are full now," he said. "They're booking out about six weeks. We have two dentists and two hygienists. In a normal dentist's office, a dentist uses two or three chairs and moves between them."
More chairs, Whitmer said, means more efficiency and more patients served faster.
CHCRR runs clinics in Castleton, Brandon and West Pawlet. Whitmer said when it came time to offer dental care, a requirement of its status as a Federally Qualified Health Center, the organization decided it was best off centrally locating the service in Rutland.
Federally Qualified Health Centers provide primary health care to under- and non-insured patients Sanders said he was a great fan of the FQHC concept because of the way it brings federal money into communities for health care.
"It is primary health care for everyone in the area and that is certainly what we need," he said. "When we talk about the health care crisis, we forget about dental care a lot. … This has been an issue for me for many, many years."
Whitmer said since the dental center opened in July, it has served 758 unique patients, 94 percent of whom either had Medicaid or no insurance at all. He said fees are on a sliding scale, and the clinic has provided $85,000 in fee reductions and free care.
Sanders said he has worked to bring financial support to a number of dental clinics around the state.
"My impression is Community Health Centers of the Rutland Region is doing a really good job," he said. "They're doing what they're supposed to be doing —bringing in people regardless of their ability to pay."
Sanders pledged to keep working to provide additional resources to FQHCs around the state.
"The good news is, we have begun to make some real progress in the region," he said. "The bad news is, we need to do more. This will help a little bit and I will be back here again."
By Gordon Dritschilo
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