BINGHAM, Maine — Dentist Larry Jacoby, 57, had been forewarned about the dental health needs in this small Somerset community with its empty storefronts.
When he arrived in Bingham in April 2009, he had heard the anecdotal stories about patients who had tried to extract their own teeth. While he knew this town near the Canadian border had been hit hard by the recession, Jacoby had never spoken to anyone who had taken such an approach in his nearly 20 years of service.
“It’s a pretty drastic measure to take,” Jacoby said recently.
It wasn’t long however, before Jacoby was looking into the mouth of a local woman who had tried to pull out two top molars and had broken each in two. Rather than seek immediate treatment, the woman came to the Bingham Area Health Center’s emergency room for treatment three weeks later. By then, both teeth were infected and abscessed and had to be extracted.
Jacoby hasn’t seen anything that drastic since, because his arrival was the start of the town’s first dental clinic. The clinic, which is the only dental facility within an approximately 40-mile radius that accepts MaineCare and payment on a sliding fee scale, has been operating out of three converted rooms in the Bingham Area Health Center.
There has been such a need for dental health care that the Bingham Area Health Council will start construction on a new dental clinic off the back of the health center later this month. Both the health and dental clinics are operated by HealthReach Community Health Centers.
“We found overwhelming success in the dental practice here,” council member Richard Garrett of Wellington said recently. It was expected that the clinic would serve 140-160 patients a month but it has served about 200 a month, he noted.
Rochelle Dumont, practice manager of the health center, said the dental clinic had 2,561 visits in 2010 and this year thus far has had 1,446 visits. The patients live throughout the Bingham area, including Skowhegan, Wellington, Moscow, Madison, Embden and Solon. About 80 to 85 percent of the clinic’s patients are on MaineCare, she said.
Fundraising for the new clinic, which will further improve dental care in the region, is well under way. Council member and grant writer Martha Young of Wellington said about $170,000 of the approximately $240,000 needed for the building has been raised. In addition, about $200,000 is needed to equip the facility. She is seeking grants, but expects the council will need to borrow.
It won’t be the first time the small council has been in debt. Formed by volunteers to bring quality and affordable health care to the community, the council raised funds in 2002 to move the health center from a small home to a new facility. It was a case of necessity since patients in wheelchairs had to have their visits and examinations in a bathroom, the only room accessible to them.
For that move, the council borrowed about $200,000 for the half-million-dollar project and paid it back in about six years, according to Garrett. He said the council had wanted to include a dental clinic during that earlier construction but found it was too costly.
To augment the grants, the council expects to borrow about $50,000 for the dental clinic, but that depends upon ground work. The location was previously the terminus of the old rail line and the round table may lie someone near which could increase the project costs, according to Garrett.
What will be the hardest perhaps is enticing a medical provider to this rural Maine community. “The financial rewards here compared to going to a place like Camden are minimal,” Garrett said.
Jacoby, of Industry, whose service was provided by the U.S. government at no cost to HealthReach, agreed.
“Recruiting is going to be a challenge,”Jacoby acknowledged. “They need someone who will enjoy a rural area, which is what appealed to me.” Jacoby, who is affiliated with the National Heath Services Corps. and is a “Ready Responder” for the Army, plans to return to Oregon at the end of his service in April.
Young said a partnership with the University of New England may be possible. The university is opening a dental school and is looking for satellite locations where students can get hands on experience in their final year, she noted. That could be a great way to recruit new dentists, she said.
“It’s very difficult trying to provide services for an underserved, low-income population,” Garrett said. “You know, we’re a backwater here, this isn’t Mainestream America. You look in the middle of downtown, 85 percent of the buildings are boarded up.”
Despite the poor economy, Young said the council has come a long way to bring affordable health care to the community. “We are hoping to have a new generation that we can offer preventive care to so that we are preventing the losing of teeth as an adult and the pain and suffering and lost work that accompanies poor dental care,” she said.
Garrett said it has been hard work by a dedicated group but the end result will help improve the health the region. “When you see someone come in for a job interview and they open their mouth and they have half a mouth of teeth, you have to wonder how many days in a month is this person going to be out because there is obvious problems,” Garrett said. “We’re trying to alleviate these problems before they become critical to the people of our area.”
“We feel it’s very important, this whole area is under served especially for people on MaineCare,
Chester Hibbard, council president said Sunday.
Angela Goldsmith, 56, of Skowhegan, said she couldn’t afford to have her teeth cleaned and filled before the Bingham clinic opened. “There’s a lot of people out there today who can’t afford to do dental work and still live.“ This clinic allows those people to do both, she said.