Free Dental Clinic Opens in Charles

Tayloni Ricks, 4, sports a pair of hot shades and gets a test squirt to ease her fear as she gets checked out at Charles County's new pediatric dental care center.
Tayloni Ricks, 4, sports a pair of hot shades and gets a test squirt to ease her fear as she gets checked out at Charles County's new pediatric dental care center. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008

In Charles County, where big houses and yards are easy to come by but access to specialized and affordable health care is limited, particularly for low-income and working-class families, there is a bright spot.

The county recently opened its first dental clinic for poor and uninsured children with hopes of extending the service to adults. Housed in the county's Health Department building in White Plains, the clinic is the first to open in the three counties that make up Southern Maryland. Calvert and St. Mary's counties do not offer such a service.

In opening the clinic, Charles becomes the 14th of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions to provide dental care for children who are uninsured or covered by Medicaid. The program is free to Medicaid patients. Others are charged on a sliding scale based on family income and insurance.

Pediatric dentist Susana Merida, who is with the University of Maryland's pediatric dentistry fellowship program, which pays dentists to work in underserved areas of the state for two years, signed on to work in the clinic four days a week, providing cleanings, fillings and restorations to about 15 children a day.

"The idea is that everyone gets the same care, but the reality is when you don't have insurance you don't get care as good as you would in private practice," Merida said. "This is what I started for: to take care of the kids who really need it."

Gretchen Harrison understands the plight of people who lack access to dental care. Harrison, a single mother who lives in Waldorf, said she had not taken her two daughters to the dentist regularly because the nearest clinic that would accept her Medicaid coverage was 20 miles away in Prince George's County. She said a combination of baby formula, soda, candy and a lack of regular brushing had turned her daughters' teeth gray from decay.

Harrison said that she felt embarrassed about her children's teeth and that she had nearly given up on finding help.

"It's been humiliating for me, because these are my babies, and when they smile, people think I'm not a good mother because they have bad teeth," she said.

The new clinic comes at a critical time for the booming county, where an estimated 14 percent of elementary school students have urgent dental problems, according to county health officials.

The clinic opens amid heightened awareness about the importance of dental hygiene. Tooth decay is the most prevalent chronic childhood disease -- it is five times more common than asthma, studies have found -- and experts say dental health is just as important as bodily health.

Children with cavities and toothaches have been found to have trouble in school and have little self-confidence because of the appearance of their teeth. In rare cases, dental problems can lead to death, as they did for Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Prince George's boy.

Deamonte became the symbol of a dysfunctional dental system for the poor in February 2007, when a tooth infection spread to his brain and resulted in his death. His mother said that she had trouble finding a dentist who would accept her Medicaid coverage, and that when that coverage lapsed, she ran out of options. The case prompted a wave of congressional hearings and state legislation, which experts say has had a dramatic effect on improving access to care.

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