BELTON, Mo. – It’s hard to learn – or concentrate on much of anything – when you have a toothache.
And yet during the last few of the 23 years he spent as superintendent of the Belton school district, which is south of Kansas City, Ken Southwick was frustrated by the lack of available dental care for poor students.
A survey conducted in 2007 and 2008 by the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry found that, because of dissatisfaction with the program’s reimbursement rates, not a single dentist in Cass County would accept new Medicaid patients.
That meant relief for a poor child with a toothache was a 30-mile drive away in Kansas City – after first clearing the waiting list at a safety-net clinic.
Since 2008, two Belton-area dentists have reportedly agreed to accept a limited number of Medicaid patients, but the access problem will be addressed in a major way in July, when the Cass County Dental Clinic opens at 802 E. Walnut St.
The clinic is expected to treat perhaps 1,000 patients a year. It will either accept Medicaid payments or charge the families of poor, uninsured children on a sliding scale based on income.
“This has been a vision we’ve had for eight or nine years,” said “Doctor Kenny” Southwick, as the retired school superintendent is affectionately known in the community.
Southwick is chairman of the board of the Research Belton Foundation, which since 2006 has subsidized a dental-health program in the Belton schools that uses local dentists to treat emergency cases referred by school nurses.
In 2009, Research Belton Foundation helped to form and then took the lead administrative role in the Cass County Oral Health Coalition. The coalition includes local dentists, hygienists, community and government leaders and representatives of private foundations – most significantly the Health Forward Foundation, which made a $250,000 grant to help establish the Cass County Dental Clinic.
In December, the Research Belton Foundation hired dental hygienist Katie Schroeder as clinic manager and she has been working ever since to open the Cass County Dental Clinic in July.
That included working with coalition members to hire Dr. Melissa Boerema, the dentist who will operate the clinic. Boerema, a 2010 graduate of the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Dentistry is scheduled to complete her residency June 30 and open the clinic a few days later.
Schroeder and Cass County Oral Health Coalition member Dr. Terry Meyers, a dentist, attended the Chicago Dental Society’s mid-winter meeting Feb. 25, looking for suppliers of the various things they will need to open the clinic in July.
Though the building they procured for the clinic was originally a dental office, it has since been converted to other uses and needs refitting.
“We are starting from scratch,” Schroeder said. “We’re buying all-new equipment, materials, small equipment and sterilizers. The office will be digital, so we are buying digital X-ray equipment and all the software and computers needed to run the office.”
The budget for the clinic’s first year, including equipment purchases, is $500,000, said Schroeder. Grants of $250,000 from the Health Forward Foundation and $125,000 from the Reach Healthcare Foundation in Merriam, Kan., will make up the lion’s share of the budget, with fees for service making up the remainder.
Schroeder said the clinic eventually hopes to be self-sustaining, without the need for ongoing foundation or other private support.
“If we are extremely efficient in getting reimbursement for everything in a timely manner, and if we are able to keep the schedule full, we should be able to be sustainable,” said Schroeder.
In addition to Schroeder and Dr. Boerema, the clinic will have a staff of four – a front-desk coordinator, a dental hygienist and two dental assistants, said Cynthia Randazzo, president of the Research Belton Foundation.
Randazzo and Schroeder said they believe the clinic will be busy.
“There are 6,000 kids in Cass County on Medicaid and 3,000 more who are uninsured,” said Schroeder. “We want to fill the gap for people who can’t receive services elsewhere.”
The Cass County Dental Clinic will begin accepting appointments in June, Schroeder said, by which time its permanent phone number will have been established and publicized. Until then, for more information, call Schroeder at (816) 276-4218.