Filling a need for fillings

On some mornings, the line outside Partnership Health Center Dental Clinic starts to form by 6 a.m., more than an hour before the clinic's doors open. With only a limited number of emergency appointments available, and patients seen on a first-come, first-serve basis, it's important to arrive early.

"That's a huge signal for us that there's just not access for people without resources in our community," says Kim Mansch, Partnership's executive director.

Mansch says patients are willing to wait because they're in pain and they likely can't afford care anywhere else. Partnership's sliding scale and payment options make dental services accessible to many Missoulians who might not otherwise be able to afford services at all. But the clinic can't keep up with current demand.

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"We're very limited on the number of new patients that we can accept," Mansch says. "As a result, our community still has a number of patients that are in an emergency type of situation, where they are actually experiencing pain and we can't establish care with them because we don't have any access."

This month, the Pew Center on the States gave Montana an "F" for failing to make preventative dental care available to kids. In Missoula, a Partnership audit of clients of all ages served in 2008 showed that 64 percent had periodontal disease, more than two-thirds had cavities and upwards of 80 percent were missing teeth.

Partnership is attempting to help turn those numbers around by launching a new dental clinic at Lowell School to serve students and their families. "The concept of opening up other access points is that that would actually free up some space here at our existing clinic," Mansch says.

Partnership is asking the Missoula City Council to sign off on a $57,837 grant to purchase a dental lab, patient chairs and other infrastructure for the new clinic. The money would come from the city's Community Development Block Grant, which is awarded annually through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city anticipates that this year it will receive $561,486 in such funding, which is distributed to community organizations that serve locals with low and moderate incomes. Council expects to vote Jan. 28 on those awards.

The Lowell Dental Clinic will operate alongside a primary health care clinic that's slated for a spring opening next to the school. Construction of the 2,500-square-foot facility is being funded by a $500,000 grant created through the federal Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare."

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