Affordable regional medical care, and now affordable dental care? That’s right. An amazing collaboration of health care interests in the San Miguel County region, along with state rural health grants, is making it possible for the Uncompahgre Medical Center in Norwood to equip and maintain a new $100,000 dental suite at the center.
The Telluride Foundation is a major player in this remarkable rural dental health care effort, along with other health services that the organization works with under its enlightened Local Health Initiative. A 2006 regional health needs surveys, under the leadership of the foundation, showed that affordable dental care was a leading “unmet need,” says Steve Siegel, UMC’s Operations and Outreach Director. Siegel, along with UMC Executive Director Michelle Haynes, are heading development of the center’s new rural dental care program, and we met in the sunny southwest corner of the medical center building where the new dental suite is becoming a reality.
Haynes, who’s been with the medical center for 11 years, is recognized as a truly gifted grant writer. Plying these talents, Haynes has won a series of state rural health grants that are funding the construction and first year operation of this new dental care suite, set to serve this area’s low-income residents who do not have private dental coverage. But both Haynes and Siegel say the center’s affordable dental care program will start slowly, and cautiously.
“We have no history” on which to base our user predictions, Siegel says. This is one of the factors making this new enterprise “so challenging” for the center, Haynes adds. She says the center’s primary patient base runs from Paradox to Placerville. In reality, the medical staff in Norwood’s rural health care center serves low income patients who live in Ridgway and even Montrose, Haynes tells me. She says area patients who need urgent dental care but who can’t afford to go to a private dentist sometimes come to the Norwood medical center, where the best the staff can do presently is provide temporary help with antibiotics and pain medication.
Dove Creek has the only other affordable rural dental care program for adults in Western Colorado. The Delta area offers low-cost dental care for children and Mesa County has a low-cost dental clinic, but it’s limited to Mesa County residents only. With these factors in mind, it’s easy to see why the future of the new affordable dental care program at Norwood is quite unpredictable.
But, given the lack of other such facilities in this region, it seems inevitable that Medicare patients and others without private dental health coverage could flock to this new program. Haynes and Siegel agree that it’s vital to start slowly, in order to “test our ability” to meet these still unknown public needs.
Still, the UMC’s leadership has successfully met many other new challenges, thanks in part to its unique designation as a Federally Qualified Health Care Center. As a new UMC brochure puts it: “As one of only three federally qualified Community Health Centers on the Western Slope, UMC utilizes many resources to help keep your costs low…”
One of those resources is the on-going collaboration with the Telluride Foundation and its programs to improve affordable health care for San Miguel River Basin residents. For example, in a collaborative effort with other state health agencies, the foundation helped create the in-school San Juan Kids Cavity Prevention Program. Students from area elementary schools – Paradox, Naturita, Norwood, Ridgway, Ouray, and Telluride – receive preventive dental treatment that includes an oral screening, cleaning, fluoride varnish, and other dental hygiene care.
Norwood’s UMC acts as the Telluride Foundation’ s “navigator” – or facilitator – for this remarkable kids dental health program. Siegel says that in its first year alone, the program has served some 475 area school children. Haynes points out that the San Juan Kids Cavity Prevention Program, as well as the new Norwood low-cost dental care service, should augment private dental practices but are not designed to compete with private practices in Telluride, Norwood and other communities. The key here is “under-served” – programs for local families who otherwise cannot afford private dental care.
Haynes says the UMC team is now interviewing dentists to work part-time in the center’s new dental suite. Recruitment ads plug Norwood’s setting – “Edged by two canyons, Norwood sits atop a 7,000-foot mesa, situated 35 miles from Telluride and 90 miles from Moab, Utah, offering the best of the southwest, including … skiing, hunting, climbing, hiking, (and) biking” as well as nearby Telluride’s world class cultural events.
The new dental suite will start modestly – operating perhaps three days a week. Its staff will include a dental assistant, a hygienist and a receptionist.
The public will get its first look at this impressive dental care facility when the UMC hosts an open house on Aug. 13. And although the center is still putting the finishing touches on the new dental suite and is interviewing staff applicants for these part-time rural health center positions, affordable dental care will soon be a reality here.
(This is the first in a two-part series on the Uncompahgre Medical Center’s expanding affordable rural health services and its partnership with the Telluride Foundation and others.)