New Aspen area dental bus providing care to poor residents
March 27, 2017
Until three weeks ago, the 25 percent of Pitkin County residents who live below the federal poverty level had little access to dental care.
That's because no dentists in the Roaring Fork Valley accept Medicaid or Medicare, said Garry Schalla, development director for Mountain Family Health Centers, which provides health care to low-income residents.
But as of March 6, the approximately 4,500 Pitkin County residents below the poverty level have a dental care option at the El Jebel Community Center parking lot. That's where Mountain Family Health has parked its new $300,000 mobile dental health care clinic for the next 18 months or so.
"The response has been overwhelming," Schalla said. "In three weeks, we have 80 new patients."
The dental bus — purchased mostly with federal grant money, though local donors chipped in, too — features a waiting room and two dental chairs, he said. Services at the bus include X-rays, filling small cavities, teeth cleaning and other basic services, Schalla said. More complicated cases will be referred to Mountain Family Health's dental clinic in Rifle, he said.
The bus will be staffed by a dentist on Mondays and Tuesdays and a hygienist on Fridays until May, when a full-time dentist is scheduled to start, Schalla said. After that, the dental bus will be open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., he said.
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The bus will be parked at the El Jebel Community Center until Pitkin County's new building in Aspen is finished, probably around summer 2018, Schalla said. After county workers move out of their temporary offices in the Stubbies Bar building in Basalt, Mountain Family Health will move in and include a fully staffed dental clinic in the 7,000-square-foot facility it will then occupy, he said.
At that point, the dental bus will become fully mobile and be able to provide services directly to schools, retirement homes and other places dental care is needed throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, Schalla said.
"It's really an important factor for dental health in the valley," he said. "It's really been the perfect solution for the short-term and long-term future."
Dental health is an important factor in overall health, Schalla said.
"Oral health is highly overlooked," he said. "The biggest reason kids miss school is oral health problems. It's really a big, big deal."
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said dental health is one of the biggest reasons the county began partnering with Aspen Valley Hospital and Mountain Family Health Centers to provide better overall health care to poor residents.
"Often, people don't deal with dental issues until there's an emergency," Peacock said. "We consider that access to be a really, really important component of controlling (healthcare) costs in the valley."
Those emergencies are often taken care of in emergency rooms, which is the most expensive and least effective way to manage health care, he said.
The dental bus will take walk-ins, though patients might have to wait and are encouraged to call Mountain Family Health and make an appointment, Schalla said. The agency accepts private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid and also has a sliding scale for patients without insurance that is based on income, he said.