Dental care offered at GarCo District 16 schools
A dental program in western Colorado aims to help low-income and Medicaid families in rural areas of western Colorado, and it’s now available in Parachute. The Mountain Family Health Center program, dubbed SMILES (Spanning Miles In Linking Everyone to Services), allows Garfield County District 16 students to receive free or low-cost dental checks at their school once a week. SMILES has an existing presence in Avon and Battlement Mesa. The clinic is hosted at Bea Underwood Elementary School on Wednesdays and now at the Grand Valley Center for Family Learning on Thursdays.
“In western Colorado, especially in small towns, dentists will only accept patients with dental insurance,” said Dr. Garry Millard, dental director at the Rifle Mountain Family Health Clinic. “The traditional dental model wasn’t meeting the needs of the rural population.”
Millard helped bring the SMILES to Colorado after 10 years as a Navy dentist and 15 years in private practice. He wanted the final decade of his career to be working in a nonprofit where he can give back. He found a new home as a dentist for Mountain Family, a mission-driven organization that provides high-quality, integrated, primary medical, behavioral and dental health care to more than 17,000 people across western Colorado communities, regardless of ability to pay.
In those communities, nearly 28 percent of residents live below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
While not every dental exam can be conducted at school, 80 percent of SMILES’ work is preventative. That includes small to medium cavity fillings, evaluations with X-rays and photos, cleanings, sealant and fluoride treatment. According to a North Carolina study, children are nearly three times more likely to miss school when they experience dental pain.
Initially started in California, Colorado is now the second state in the United States to allow dental care in schools.
Through the Caring for Colorado grant, Mountain Family Health Centers will receive half a million dollars over the next three years to be used for SMILES.
“The hope is that we deliver care in a cost-efficient way so that we will be self-sustaining by the end of the three-year period,” Millard said.
The grant money will pay for portable dental equipment, portable X-ray equipment and other dental equipment to be placed at Bea Underwood Elementary, Grand Valley Center for Family Learning and Avon Elementary School. It will also pay to hire and train the dental staff, which includes four training sessions in Denver.
Holding the dental exams at school not only saves time and money for the parents, but also eliminates the need for Millard to go for each individual checkup. In fact, thanks to teledentistry, he can view X-rays from his desk in Rifle and decide which procedures are simple enough to be performed at the school. On Tuesday he reviewed 22 separate charts from his office.
That not only is a better use of his time, but parents no longer have to take time off of work to deal with their child’s dental needs.
“My daughter went in and had four sealants done this morning,” said Claudia Flores, who is a family service worker for Parachute Head Start and works out of the Grand Valley Center for Family Learning. “As a parent this means everything.”
She said that it’s been difficult to find an available dentist appointment in town, and if her daughter were to have a toothache or dental emergency, the soonest she could see the dentist would be in three months.
Dental hygienist Crystal Mecham, who conducts most of the exams and checkups in Parachute, saw five patients the first week and was scheduled to see six Wednesday. While the program hopes to provide dental care for every student in Garfield School District 16, the goal is to create knowledge through education and preventative services.
“Education is primary to this program,” Millard added. “We’re teaching kids to take ownership of dental health by discussing home care, diet and why it’s important to see a dentist before their tooth hurts.”
Millard said, every dollar spent on dental prevention saves $55 in downstream costs.
“It really does have a huge impact,” said Kim Frees, assistant principal at Bea Underwood Elementary. “We are in a low socioeconomic community and dental health oftentimes is not on a family’s list of priorities.”
Currently, SMILES is in two of four schools in the district. Frees said that the district is open to seeing the program at Grand Valley High School.
Millard said that the plan is to add the program to Coal Ridge High School by early next year.
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