The Health Center expansion will improve dental care in central Vermont

By:  Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau

PLAINFIELD – The Plainfield Health Center will open the doors today to a newly expanded dental clinic that is expected to serve an additional 1,000 patients annually.

The stimulus-funded expansion will offer lower-income residents in central Vermont increased availability to scare dental resources, Sen. Bernard Sanders said Tuesday. The grand opening in Plainfield on Wednesday, he said, is part of a broader initiative to improve dental care statewide.

“When we talk about health care, we too often ignore dental care,” Sanders said. “And lack of access to dental care is a huge problem in this country and a very serious problem in Vermont.”

Vermont’s eight “federally qualified health centers,” the Plainfield Health Center among them, have helped alleviate the dental-care shortage, Sanders said.

According to data provided by Sanders’ office, federal investments in recent years have helped double the number of Vermonters getting dental care from community health centers, from 9,500 in 2004 to 19,000 in 2009.

The $400,000 expansion at Plainfield, he said, will further improve upon those numbers by expanding the number of dental chairs, from nine to 14, and adding an oral surgeon to an existing team of three dentists and three hygienists.

“And the beauty of this is that federally qualified health centers treat people on a sliding basis,” Sanders said. “If you don’t have any money or insurance, you can still get affordable care.”

Thanks to investments in federal health care centers, Sanders said, Vermont now fares well in dental care when compared to the rest of the nation. But he said more than 40 percent of children still do not have a “regular dental home.”

Dr. John Matthew of the Plainfield Health Center said that in addition to the $400,000 in stimulus funds, a $135,000 earmark secured by Sanders in a separate appropriations bill has allowed the clinic to purchase new dental equipment to support the expansion.

Matthew said dental care is an important component of overall physical health. Gum disease, he said, has been linked to increased rates of heart disease. And poor oral health, according to Matthew, can lead to nutritional deficiencies among people unable to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.

He said a lack of dental care can have social and emotional consequences as well.

“There’s a program called Reach Up that tries to get people to be employable. And they help people with resumes so as to make them marketable workers and get a get job,” Matthew said. “They will send us people to get teeth restructured or get a set of dentures because the reality is you can’t be a receptionist if you’ve got a rotten smile.”

Matthew said the social costs of bad teeth can be particularly steep for children. An outreach program that sends dental assistants out to rural areas to perform work on children, he said, has improved lives.

“Our staff comes back with amazing, touching stories about how grateful kids are to no longer have to hide from the mirror,” he said.

The Plainfield Health Center now provides dental services to about 4,000 patients annually. The expansion, according to Sanders, will push the number to 5,000.