Bright smile: Nonprofit dental center keeps kids grinning
Thanks to a little-known local institution, thousands of kids may have been saved from a lifetime of embarrassment, dimmed employment prospects, and potential health woes. The Community Dental Center just celebrated its 10,000th patient.
Tucked away in a Hydraulic Road office park, the Center looks like any other pediatric dentist's office, but the similarity ends with the bill. Unlike other dentist's offices, where a filling can set an uninsured parent back hundreds of dollars, the Center offers low-cost dental treatment to less-fortunate children.
A 2007 New York Times article found that for the first time since the 1980s, the number of Americans living with untreated dental problems was increasing. These problems are not merely cosmetic issues, as infected teeth can, in fact, become life-threatening infections.
Take the case of the cash-strapped 24-year-old Cincinnati man who died in September after a wisdom tooth became impacted. Even routine tooth decay can lead to tooth loss, which can create a cascade of new medical issues including jawbone loss. Moreover, psychological effects and a lifetime of lessened job prospects might ensue from tooth loss.
In addition to accepting Medicaid (which covers about half the annual million-dollar budget), the Center– which employs 11 dental professionals and sees about 35 children per day– charges non-Medicaid patients about half the amount that the Center would be reimbursed by that government agency. That means a filling that might cost $250 at a private practice might be as little as $125 at the Center– a big difference on a tight budget.
The Center was founded in 2005 by a group of local residents including longtime local dentist Bill Viglione with support from Richmond-based dentist Terry Dickinson, executive director of the Virginia Dental Association and one of the founders of the MOM Project, the free annual dental clinic in southwest Virginia where thousands of individuals get free treatments– sometimes after decades of pain.
"Catch 'em young, you can break the cycle," says Center board member DJ Bickers, a Charlottesville dentist who says he hopes to find new donors to keep the Center afloat– and to help the Center's young patients– ranging in age from 2 to 21– learn that a trip to the dentist doesn't have to be painful.
"Our job," he says, "is to teach them that if you take care of your teeth, you can have dentistry without pain and a healthy smile."