For years, access to dental care was one of the biggest issues facing the uninsured population in Richland and Lexington County. Patients suffering dental pain would show up in emergency rooms seeking relief, either because they didn’t know where to get cared for or, more often, because they had no other option. The problem only worsened in 2009, when South Carolina’s Medicaid program cut dental care from its benefits package.
“It [was] one of the biggest unmet need for adults in South Carolina,” says Vince Ford, Palmetto Health's chief community health services officer. “It had been that way for decades started at Palmetto Health 20 years ago.”
That has changed dramatically in recent years thanks to Ford, Palmetto Health, and a slew of community partners who stepped up to meet that urgent need.
While the hospital system has long made efforts to serve the community, the idea of doing something specific to address dental health in the wake of the Medicaid cuts in 2009 stemmed from Mission 2010, a 36-hour charity service that offered free dental and medical care to any who needed it. Hosted at the University of South Carolina Coliseum, Ford says the line began forming nearly a day in advance for those who needed care. And, he admits, roughly 90% were there to receive dental care.
“[Chuck] Beaman, [Palmetto Health CEO] challenged me in the wake of the Mission,” Ford says. “‘That’s one day out of the year. What are we doing every day?’”
After SC Mission, Palmetto Health began to work with Lexington Medical Center and local dentists to create the Midlands Dental Initiative, a volunteer group of dentists and technicians who would provide exams, extractions, fillings, and other surgeries for those in need. 20 dentists would give some time each month, typically seeing 3 to 5 patients, and Palmetto Health would reimburse the cost of the service at Medicaid rates.
“The project just exploded,” Ford says. “Dentists realized they were providing a great community service, while hospitals benefited [thanks] to a decrease in dental visits to the ER.”
MDI would continue to grow, going from 743 patients in 2012 to 1,281 in 2014. Last year, the initiative transformed into the WellPartners clinics, a partnership between Palmetto Health, the United Way of the Midlands, Lexington Medical Center, Providence Health and BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina that shifted to a full-time, five-day schedule at two permanent locations with some paid staff and the ability to handle walk-ins. The clinics were generally housed in available space in the Richland and Lexington County Health Department buildings, providing convenient points of access to those most in need.
“I've always wanted to help patients and not worry about whether they can pay or whether they can afford it [or not],” says Tamara Stockton, DDS, MAGD, who is now the full-time dentist on staff at WellPartners after having volunteered in the past. “I knew the program, the people, and the community that it served. The patient population, once they find out about it, they are very grateful that it exists.”
Stockton is clearly proud of the impact the program has, even beyond reducing dental patients visiting the ER.
“The people we have seen one time for dental pain, we tell them to come back and most do,” she explains. “Once they are educated on what they can do to keep something major from happening, most follow along with the program. Most people want to keep their teeth!”
The success of the Midlands Health Initiative partners is clear—Stockton notes that this is the first time ever in Palmetto Health’s annual community health needs assessment that dental care was not among the top five requests—and the hospital was recently awarded an AHA NOVA Award, an honor bestowed to five programs around the country who are “bright stars of the health care field.”
“Programs like this can be replicated in other areas. The communities have the skills and, if they have the need, they can generate the necessary will to make it happen,” Ford argues. “When we all pool our resources and services together, whether it’s in equal [amounts] or not, it can be greater than the sum of its parts.”
For more information about the WellPartners and the services they provide, go to wellpartners.org.