Up to a few months ago it was hard for someone on Medicaid to find a dentist in the Brattleboro area. Reimbursement rates are low and some dentists refuse to take Medicaid patients.
But a new dental center in southern Vermont has opened to address that problem.
The new Windham County Dental Center opened in late May, and staff has been getting up to speed. At a training day in late July, three of the center's employees were huddled around a computer learning the electronic medical record system.
"We've been very, very busy. We've been very busy," said Carmen Derby, director of United Way of Windham County — the group that helped open the center.
United Way used to hold a free dental care day once a year for people on Medicaid or those without insurance. Dentists in the area volunteered their services, and Derby said there was always a lot more need than there was time to get people dental care.
"The reality is that members in our community that have Medicaid could not find a dental home," Derby said. "And our data told us that we had about 5,000 people in Windham County that did not have a dental home. And we wanted to create a home for people to come."
Gionna Martocci, of Brattleboro, is on Medicaid and she hadn't been to a dentist in five years.
"I feel like I tried a couple different dental offices," Martocci said, "and you know, my insurance wasn't accepted. ... Nobody was taking my insurance, they weren't taking new patients."
The last time Martocci did go, she had an emergency wisdom tooth extraction which she had to pay for out of pocket; she said the $800 cost maxed out her credit card.
She heard about Windham County Dental Center on Facebook and was one of the first in to get a checkup and cleaning. Now she has another appointment set up to start working on some of the long-term dental issues she's been ignoring.
"I'm going back in September, and for the first time ever I'm, like, excited to go to the dentist. So it's, you know, it's a big deal to be able to smile again," Martocci said.
A few big grants will help the center operate for three years, and organizers hope the model is sustainable.
Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is partnering with United Way, and the hospital provides the office and a staff dentist. Other staffers volunteer their time.
Robin Miller, the oral health director at the Vermont Health Department, said the connection between the hospital and the dental office is vital.
"The two systems of care, the medical and dental health care systems, are very much separated," Miller said. "So I think oral health is really gaining recognition as an important part of overall health."
Good oral health can be an important component in getting a job and feeling comfortable out in the world, and Miller said people with low incomes have many more barriers in making sure they get regular dental care.
"When it comes to oral health care in Vermont, the higher your socio-economic status is the better off you are in terms of access to dental care," Miller said. "And for a lot of people reliable transportation is an issue, time off from work to get to an appointment is an issue, length of distance to a provider is an issue. So all these other things come into play."
Miller said before the center opened, Windham County had been a black hole in the overall push to get dental care to the state's low-income residents.