Low-Cost Akron Dental Clinic Closing

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At a discount strip mall in Akron, a long corridor of doctor examination rooms leads to the Akron Dental Clinic. Inside, is a little girl wearing pink. Her hair in beads and braids and she's watching TV in the waiting room. Her grandmother, Bobby Brown is filling out paperwork for her new dentures which she says have changed her life.

Bobby Brown: My teeth had been missing for so long it was making my jawbone uneven.

And she says those missing back molars created awful problems for her.

Bobby Brown: I didn't chew food thoroughly because I didn't have my teeth. So it made it hard on digestion, my stomach stayed upset all the time. So I feel great. I look better and now I'll probably never stop smiling.

The new partial dentures the Akron Dental Clinic made for Brown has actually lifted her sinking jaw. But she's one of the last patients to receive such a gift. Akron's Low Cost Dental Clinic has had a shaky financial history, and its closing on Tuesday. Joyce Tate helped manage the Clinic.

Joyce Tate: It's really a sad day for us. But it's really a sad day for the community especially those who don't have insurance because they're going to have limited access to getting dental care now.

Money from Ohio's share of the Landmark national multistate settlement with tobaccos companies opened the Dental Clinic in 2003. The logic was that tobacco settlement money could be used to prevent oral health problems related to smoking and chewing tobacco. When those dollars dried up, the state-of-the art dental center was forced to close for the first time in 2005. But it wasn't very long before Tate and Akron Community Health Resources found grant money to reopen it.

Joyce Tate: We started out with first year funding. And we had hoped there would be some opportunities for some federal dollars or an increase in dollar or state funding but nothing materialized.

Other low cost dental clinics are in a similar struggles for sustainable funding. David Owsiany directs the Ohio Dental Association. He says low cost clinics in the North, like ones in Lucus, Lorain, and Sandusky counties and ones in Vinton and Adams counties in the south, are also running in the red.

David Owsiany: It is difficult for low cost dental clinics to keep their doors open because reimbursements related to dentistry have been historically so low.

Owsiany says the majority of people these clinics treat are covered by medicaid, which only reimburses 50% of what private insurance companies do. To make things worse, he says, the state eliminated coverage of some dental procedures two years ago, further squeezing clinic revenues.

But he's hopeful that Governor Strickland will be able to reverse the trend. Stricklands' budget proposal calls for restoring full dental services under medicaid. However, it would not increase the 50% reimbursement rate.

David Owsiany: By fully funding Medicaid, it's a step in the right direction. It may not be the full answer, but I think policy makers now understand that dental care is crucial to overall health care. And people who are in poor oral health end up having systemic health issues down the line, which costs the system much more when patients with infections present at the hospital emergency room.

Even if Strickland is successful, it may be too late for the Akron Dental Clinic. Grandmother Bobby Brown was one of the thousands of people was helped by the clinic, and now she says, to get affordable care, she'll have a long road to travel. Brown, like many people the Akron Dental Clinic served, doesn't own a car.

Bobby Brown: They really don't have facilities like this in this area. Most people will have to go to Canton or Medina and that's going to be extremely hard.

Brown says she'd spend a day traveling to have work done on her new dentures. But for a routine cleaning it might not be worth it. Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.

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