BANGOR, Maine — With an admittedly heavy heart, Bangor’s public health director recommended to city councilors that they should temporarily and indefinitely suspend the preventive oral health program because it’s no longer economically solvent.
Shawn Yardley told councilors at a meeting Monday that although he’s committed to providing dentistry to low-income children in Bangor, the city is offering the subsidized services at a particularly dire financial time.
“Absent any federal or state funding, the city is doing this and is doing it at a great loss,” he said.
After a lengthy discussion, councilors ultimately accepted Yardley’s recommendation, although they pledged to work even harder to try to convince Maine’s congressional delegation that this program should be funded. The program operates on about $160,000 annually. Roughly $55,000 of that is reimbursed through Maine-Care, but that number is dropping all the time, Yardley said.
Councilor Hal Wheeler said the city should work harder to retain the preventive oral health program, and he challenged city staff to find the money. Councilor Geoffrey Gratwick added: “It seems we’re short-changing the least fortunate.”
Eventually, though, each agreed with Yardley’s recommendation.
“I have the highest regard for Shawn and I know he agonized over this decision,” Wheeler said.
Councilor Pat Blanchette said the city has an obligation to provide the service.
“We don’t have the money right now, OK,” she said. “But this isn’t something we should put in the closet and forget about.”
The economic component is only part of the problem, Yardley told councilors. The other part is that there are simply not enough children seeking subsidized dentistry, even though no other towns offer those services.
“We’ve even reached out to other towns for collaboration and got zero response,” he said.
The lack of interest is emblematic of health care in general, according to City Manager Edward Barrett.
“There has been a hard time attracting people into the program because people often don’t deal with something until it becomes a problem,” he said.
Bangor’s preventive oral health program targets children, usually under age 5, who cannot otherwise afford dental care. Yardley said many independent dentists are not actively seeking out child patients, particularly those who don’t offer much in the way of insurance reimbursement.
“Unfortunately, in many cases, the first time a child goes to the dentist, he or she already has a disease,” he said.
Although the youth dental program will be suspended, Yardley said he plans to continue educating parents about the need for preventive care.
“I am optimistic that in the next 18 to 24 months that there will be money coming,” he said. “I don’t think we should sell off our assets, just mothball them.”