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Rural Minnesota lacks dental care for uninsured, Medical Assistance clients

Grants, donations fund mobile clinics locally.

Stock image of dental tools.
Stock image of dental tools.
Stock photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

WORTHINGTON — February is Dental Health Month, and while many people with dental insurance can count on getting in to see their dentist for twice-a-year teeth cleanings and oral exams, not everyone has the financial ability to be seen by a local provider.

For several years now, Nobles County has hosted mobile dental clinics to provide both basic and advanced dental care for children and adults who are either served by Medical Assistance or have no dental insurance at all.

Due to the reimbursement structure of Medical Assistance (MA), there are no dentists in Nobles or Rock county who accept clients on MA or without insurance. It’s a common problem in many rural areas of Minnesota and, in fact, the nearest place many of them can receive dental care is the Twin Cities.

Terri Jansen, executive director of Southwest Minnesota Opportunity Council’s Family Planning office in Worthington, said a mobile dental lab from Minneapolis-based Children’s Dental Services continues to see patients in Nobles and Rock counties thanks to donations and grants that help cover the cost of mileage, staff, supplies and other expenses.

“We just want to recognize all of the partners that have been donors to keep the program going,” Janssen said, noting that a $2,000 grant from the Robert and Florence Wolff Memorial Endowment Fund, administered by the Southwest Initiative Foundation, covered the costs for two of the three days the mobile dental clinic was in Worthington earlier this month.

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Support also comes from United Way, the Worthington Area Foundation, Worthington Regional Health Care Foundation, Worthington Noon Kiwanis, SMOC Head Start, Southern Prairie Community Care, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Minnesota Oral Health Project, Delta Dental (toothbrushes and floss) and Apple White Dental (toothpaste).

SMOC partners with Rock County and its #Luv1LuvAll organization to bring the mobile clinic to the two counties, and each time the clinic splits its time between Worthington and Luverne.

“(Children’s Dental Services) bring a dental hygienist and an assistant,” Janssen said. “They are able to provide care at a higher level. They do treatments, scheduling and rescheduling, and they bill all of the insurance.

“It just helps people not to have to drive out of the area to get the care they need,” she added. “(CDS) has a sliding scale for other patients to get them the care they need, and it gives us one more option for access to care.”

In 2020, Children’s Dental Services treated 276 clients in Nobles County, and it’s likely they saw just as many patients in 2021. Records show they served 155 clients last year, but two months of data were missing, and there were no numbers from SMOC Head Start for the clinics offered at that facility.

Janssen said they added six more clinics in Nobles County in 2021, thanks to funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Those clinics allowed for 78 clients to receive dental care.

“Of the 2021 clients we saw — not including CARES clients — 122 had Minnesota state health insurance for dental and were unable to be seen locally, three had other insurance and 30 had no insurance and utilized the sliding fee scale,” Janssen noted.

In March, Children’s Dental Services will return to Nobles and Rock counties, with one day dedicated to seeing children in SMOC Head Start and one day to see SMOC community patients, followed by one day in Luverne. In April, CDS will spend two days in Luverne and two days in Worthington.

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“Sometimes it’s follow-up and sometimes it’s new patients,” Janssen said. “They always leave slots for emergency patients.”

While the mobile dental clinics are working well, Janssen would like to see a more permanent solution locally.

“I feel like we’re making as good of an impact as we can, but I do hope we can make a bigger impact,” she said. “We know that Blue Cross Blue Shield has dedicated funds to Nobles County to hire a dental innovations coordinator. We are hoping once that position is in place, we can make a bigger impact.

“What I’d love to see is brick and mortar for the reduced cost clinics for people who are unable to be seen by other dentists due to circumstances beyond their control,” she added.

Pipestone County is looking at doing just that.

A Caring Hands dental clinic is planning to break ground in Pipestone this spring, and they will be able to serve clients on Medical Assistance. Pipestone County contracts with PrimeWest, and that provider is willing to accept patients within a 60-mile radius of Pipestone — meaning Worthington residents could eventually be seen there.

In the meantime, Janssen said they will continue to set up their mobile dental clinics in the former SMOC Head Start building on Worthington’s 11th Street and other spaces as available.

Individuals who would like to make a dental appointment with Children’s Dental Services may call directly at 1-866-543-6009. And, if anyone would like to contribute to the program financially, contact Janssen at (507) 360-7579.

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Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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