SOUTHBRIDGE – A volunteer committee of people involved with health care and children is searching for an answer to the problem many schoolchildren face each day: no dentists.
“I get tired of saying, ‘I can’t help you,'” Jackee Cepeda, of YOU Inc., said of her response to school nurses looking for dentists for children.
“Children are going to school with cavities, gum infections, rotting teeth. I don’t think people know how serious a problem it is,” said Ms. Cepeda, who has served as coordinator of the volunteer committee.
The problem is one that a special state legislative commission last year called an oral health crisis in Massachusetts: Not enough dentists are available for people on MassHealth, the state’s health plan that includes Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Ms. Cepeda said about half of the town’s 2,700 pupils are eligible for dental care through MassHealth, but only one Southbridge dentist accepts MassHealth patients.
“It’s hard enough to find a dentist if you do have dental insurance,” said Ms. Cepeda. “For those without dental insurance it’s impossible.”
Last January, Ms. Cepeda, along with JoAnn D. Austin, superintendent of schools; school nurses; Dr. Dewey J. Tiberii, an orthodontist, and representatives of Head Start and Harrington Memorial Hospital began meeting to see what could be done.
Mrs. Austin said the group, which has no funding, gathered behind Ms. Cepeda’s lead because “we all deal with a lot of issues, but this issue has risen to the top.”
Ms. Cepeda is coordinator of YOU Inc.’s Project Access MassHealth.
As a first step, the School Department will send out a survey in late November or early December to find out how many students have dentists and dental insurance, and how often they see a dentist.
“We want to get our hands around the scope of this issue,” Mrs. Austin said. “We know there is a large number who don’t have access to dental care. We see children at kindergarten registrations with several cavities or severe dental problems you shouldn’t see in a 5-year-old mouth. Once we find out how many, we will apply for grants.”
But beyond the survey, she noted, there is nothing now to offer children with dental problems.
Ms. Cepeda said the committee is looking into buying a portable dental chair, seeking dentists who might volunteer time to a clinic, and studying possible sites for a clinic.
She said Dr. Tiberii has asked retired dentists to consider donating equipment, and the committee has applied for a $1,000 grant to buy a portable chair.
The UMass Memorial Ronald McDonald mobile clinic will be in Southbridge one day next month to provide molar sealants and screening for cavities and other dental problems. However, Ms. Cepeda noted, the number of children who will be seen at the clinic is limited, and the clinic does not provide the dental treatment many children may need.
“We’re not funded, which means things move slower,” Ms. Cepeda said. “But I think we’ve made headway. We’ve done a lot of research, networking, talking.
“Our goal right now is to address the needs of the minority population of Southbridge, zero to 18 years old. Our ultimate goal is a community clinic,” she said.
The committee’s groundwork could help Southbridge take advantage of help that may be available next year through the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts.
The foundation provided almost $1 million for a pilot program on dental care for children and the uninsured elderly in Central Massachusetts.
That yearlong pilot program began over the summer at Quinsigamond Community College, Worcester. Foundation President Janice B. Yost said that organization would like to work with a group in southern Worcester County next year to develop a program in that area.
The foundation also gave $81,000 to the Montachusett Opportunity Council to plan an oral-health project in northern Worcester County, where students’ dental needs have already been surveyed.
“It’s been very easy to fill appointments” at the QCC pilot program, said Lizette Yarzebski. She is dental manager at Great Brook Valley Health Center in Worcester, a health center clinic in Clinton, and the QCC pilot clinic.
The Great Brook Valley Health Center’s dental clinic accepts MassHealth patients. It saw 14,000 patients last year. It has eight dentists, adds 18 new patients a week, has a waiting list of 500, and sees patients from as far away as Boston.
If a patient has a number of cavities, “it could take years to finish treatment,” Ms. Yarzebski said, “and we see children with 20 teeth and 20 cavities.”
Holly LaFrance, coordinator for Southbridge school nursing services, said school nurses watch the dental problems of children progress from pre-school through high school, with no resources to deal with the problems.
“The nurses are often the first person to see this problem,” she said, “but there’s not much we can do about it. We do want to be part of the solution
It is estimated that 14 percent of Central Massachusetts dentists accept patients covered by the state-subsidized dental insurance program. Throughout the state, an estimated 900 dentists are available to serve 900,000 people covered by MassHealth.