Dental Care Becoming More Accessible For All
by CHERYL ROGERS
Highlands, and Hardee counties, where they saw 42,426 patients in 134,558 visits last year. “The demand is incredible. We can’t keep up with it,” says Ann Claussen, its chief Dentists like Dr. William Nerestant of Lakeland donate their time to provide dental care to the needy, bringing smiles to patients one mouth at a time.
Dr. William Nerestant never saw a dentist until he went to dental school at the University of Detroit/Mercy. He’d known he wanted a career in healthcare, but dentistry wasn’t on his radar. His plans were to go to medical school — until some friends shared their own aspirations in the dental field.
Today Dr. Nerestant, who practices at Midtown Dental in Lakeland, enjoys giving back to the community by volunteering his services to those in need. Sometimes it’s when a specific need arises, or at an annual free dental day at his office around Thanksgiving.
“Growing up in Haiti, I knew about going to the doctor, but dentistry was not something that was at the forefront,” he explains.
Because his parents couldn’t take him to a dentist, it wasn’t until dental school that he was able to get braces to take care of the spaces between his teeth. “Now people compliment me about my teeth,” he says. “When somebody mentions something about your smile, it kind of lifts you up inside. It was quite an experience for me.”
Dr. Nerestant, along with and local Drs. Greg Scott, Mical Slater, and others, usually focus on cavities and cleaning during the free clinics. “The scope of what we do is to offer instant relief,” he says. “I wish we would be able to provide a wider menu of service. That’s what we are able to do in one day.”
These days Dr. Nerestant is well aware of the importance of good oral health – and its connection to heart disease, diabetes, and even premature birth and low-birth weight. “Sometimes we take it for granted when we have good oral health,” he says, “and we don’t see … how it affects everything else.”
As awareness grows about the link between oral and overall health, local government has increased efforts to make dental care more affordable for everyone. Through partnerships with organizations like Central Florida Health Care, it’s beefing up free and discounted services — and bringing them closer to home.
As a Federally Qualified Health Center, CFHC operates 14 clinics in Polk, executive officer.
Some 32,885 of those visits were for dental services.
CFHC is strengthening its oral health services to mirror what it’s doing on the medical services side. “We’re just very committed to the communities that we serve. A lot of them don’t have anywhere else to go,” Claussen explains. “We truly see everybody. Even if they are undocumented we see them, because that’s what we should be doing.”
CFHC currently offers dental services at eight area clinics: two in Winter Haven, one in Frostproof, two in Wauchula, one in Avon Park, one in Lake Wales, and one in Mulberry. It is expanding, with plans to add dental services in Haines City in about three or four months.
Within two or three years, the plan is to open a $3 million complex of at least three stories where it could serve adults and children through a dental residency program, Claussen says.
In Polk County, a half-cent sales tax pumps $2.6 million into dental care, says Joy Johnson, relations administrator for the county’s Health and Human Services Division.
The half-cent sales tax is funneled into programs like that at CFHC, the dental assisting program at Lakeland’s Traviss Technical College, and Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, which offers services to patients.
“The one way we tried to increase access was to fund the agencies that did the nonprofit work,” Johnson says. “They already have the capacity for dental work in their operations. We basically asked them to expand their dental program.”
The Polk County Health Department offers help to the uninsured through its Indigent Healthcare Plan. “They can contact the health department to make an appointment and our staff can work with individuals to see if they qualify,“ says Nicole Riley, public information officer.
At Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, they cater to the working uninsured living in Polk County with income at 200 percent or below the poverty level. They expect to begin taking patients again in May after catching up from a backlog. “We’re just trying to let everybody get caught up right now,” says Kim Taylor, director of operations.
The clinic is staffed with 180 volunteers, but its two dental staffers are paid because they have a hard time recruiting volunteers. “We’ve had dental here since the beginning, and we go back to 2001,” Taylor says. “Your dental health is a big part of your overall general health.”
Florida has made some improvements since 2010, when it earned an F grade from the non-partisan PEW Research Center that assesses oral health policies and access to care, according to Florida’s Burden of Oral Disease Surveillance Report. That was upgraded to a D in 2013 and C- in 2014, the August 2016 report shows.
Those looking for discounted dental services can access an interactive, online tool at the Florida Department of Health website at floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/community-health/dental-health/resources/index. The tool allows them to search for prospective dental practitioners based on their address or community.