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Northern Dental Access Center in need of more volunteer dentists

Dr. Katie Bendickson of Warroad (left) and dental hygienist Erica Evans provide dental care to Sally Bartel of Nevis on Tuesday at the Northern Dental Access Center in Bemidji. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — The Northern Dental Access Center, on the heels of a successful Mission of Mercy event, is renewing a call to regional dentists interested in serving the at-risk population.

"Mission of Mercy was such a wonderful gift, to be able to showcase again the limited access that low-income folks have to dental care," said Jeanne Edevold Larson, executive director of the dental clinic.

Minnesota Mission of Mercy, an event hosted earlier this month at the Sanford Center, provided more than 1,100 people with 6,879 free dental procedures valued at more than $960,000, according to event organizers.

"I’ve heard great feedback from patients, friends, relatives, community members, who were just astounded (by the numbers of people seeking help)," said local dentist Dr. John Lueth, the MnMOM local chairman. "They didn’t comprehend it until they saw it firsthand."

In the wake of that event, the nonprofit Northern Dental Access Center is hoping volunteer dentists who worked the two-day MnMOM might be willing to consider filling shifts at the Bemidji clinic.

Dentist shifts there are down 16 percent thus far this year, which means fewer patients can be seen, Edevold Larson said. Appointments are down 18 percent.

"The challenge is it reduces our reimbursements and there are certain fixed costs that are unchangeable so we’ve found ourselves in some budgetary challenges that shouldn’t be necessary if we were fully staffed," Edevold Larson said. "The financial model does work, we’re just short on those folks."

Northern Dental Access Center relies on dentists willing to work shifts on a volunteer or contractual basis.

But after losing about a half-dozen "regulars" — those able to commit to a specific number of shifts per week or month — fewer shifts have been filled.

The access center works with dentists to identify workable arrangements. For example, a semi-retired dentist who visits family here four or five times a year volunteers two days a week at the clinic while he is in town. He is paid a travel stipend.

"Every dentist has a unique arrangement," Edevold Larson said. "We’ve become adept at juggling our patient needs with whatever any dentist is willing to do."

Another dentist wants to maintain his private practice in anther town, so he works at Northern Dental Access Center two days a week for a daily rate.

"It just augments his ability to have a practice," Edevold Larson said.

Dentists currently come from Bemidji, Fargo/Moorhead, Brainerd/Baxter, and the Twin Cities.

"To see 200 dentists from around the Midwest (for MnMOM), come here, see our community and have a passion or giving back, if we could tap into some of that even once in a while … that would help," she said.

About the clinic

Northern Dental Access Center last year served more than 11,500 patients, 39 percent of whom were children.

The clinic can serve between 40 and 80 patients a day, depending on the availability of dentists to fill shifts.

There are about 200 new patient inquiries a month as appointments already are being booked into October.

Northern Dental Access Center does not accept traditional insurance or see patients who have an ability to pay out of pocket. The clinic abides by its mission to serve low-income residents enrolled in Minnesota Health Care Plans, such as Medical Assistance and Minnesota Care.

Similarly enrolled patients can account for 10 to 20 percent of the patients seen at local dentist practices, Edevold Larson said, but that has gotten more difficult in recent years.

"As Mission of Mercy worked hard to point out, it’s become more and more difficult for them to do that, because of the increasingly lower reimbursements," Edevold Larson said.

Since 2010, the Legislature has eliminated coverage for molar root canals and root planning, reduced the number of preventive visits from two to one per year, and no longer reimburses for denture alignment and repairs, she said. Additionally, it cut the amount of critical access dental payments from 40 to 30 percent and reduced the reimbursement for Medical Assistance by 3 percent.

One of the more rewarding aspects of the work done at the access center is with dentures and partial dentures, which some access centers opt against offering due to the costs and time involved.

Twenty to 30 percent of the access center’s adult patients have dentures or partial dentures, Edevold Larson said. The youngest patient to benefit from partial dentures was 17 years old.

"It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of what we do," she said. "The return of a confident smile."

More than dentistry

Last year, the clinic hired Carol Kelly, a nurse practitioner.

Services now offered on site include blood pressure checks, mental health screenings and referrals, quit smoking plans and support, chemical use assessments, teen wellness checks, rapid HIV screening, maternal and child health support service, chronic disease information and referral, and medication review and assistance.