Low-cost dental clinic helps transform smiles for children and adultsAug 03, 2022 07:46PM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart
By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]
In 2019, the Charitable Health Clinic operated by Midvale Community Building Community (CBC) was busy: an average of 200 medical or dental visits per month. A few months into the pandemic that number increased, and now the number of total visits has doubled.
“June (2021) is when we started getting absolutely slammed,” said Mauricio Agramont, the executive director of Midvale CBC. “People started being ready to go back to get medical and dental services. Everybody who had delayed treatment for so long, they all came. A lot of people lost their job or their insurance.”
A few months later, Dr. Priscila Bautista began volunteering.
Originally from Brazil, Bautista came to the United States with her husband and three children in 2016. Though she graduated from dental school more than 20 years ago, Bautista needed to complete a two-year residency and work 6,000 hours to be fully licensed to practice dentistry here.
“I’m an international dentist,” Bautista said. “I need to build up hours working as a dentist and the only way I can do this is as a volunteer. It’s amazing helping those people who need it. So I decided to stay here full time, every day, all day long. Some Saturdays, some nights.”
Soon after Bautista arrived, the clinic was also able to upgrade the dental equipment.
“We used to work with portable dental units,” Agramont said. “Now we have four full working chairs with a vacuum pump and compressor. We’ve improved our electronic medical records system and that has really changed the quality of the experience. Before, our capacity to serve wasn’t as great. We had to develop X-rays. Now we are digital. That is improving the experience of our volunteer dentists.”
The clinic offers all the services of a private clinic: fillings, root canals, extractions, implants, even cosmetic treatments like whitening and veneers all for less than half the price. Clients do not need to have insurance, but they do need to provide proof of income.
“Patients save 60% of the costs. The community said we don’t want free services, we want affordable services,” Agramont said. “They would live with an impacted tooth for a year. Deciding to start the dental clinic came from horror stories, people coming in with a broken tooth because they tried to extract it themselves. We serve working families who would delay care for themselves, but not for their children.”
One in five children in Utah have untreated dental decay and need immediate dental care, according to the Utah Department of Health.
With a $5,000 grant from the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation, the clinic has been able to expand low-cost preventative dental services to treat more low-income, uninsured Latino children in Salt Lake County.
“This is one of those key initiatives that we really want to support,” said Tiffany Erickson, the media relations manager at Rocky Mountain Power. “What we know is that when kids are hungry, they don’t go to school. When they have medical issues, they don’t go to school. We want to support organizations and initiatives that are helping lower those barriers and make sure that kids have opportunities just like anybody else.”
Often, families have some children who were born in the United States and others who weren’t. The younger siblings can qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Program or Medicaid, while their older siblings don’t.
“We have families where one of the children qualifies, but others don’t because of where they were born,” Agramont said. “As a parent, they don’t want to favor one child.”
For more than a decade, the clinic has offered dental services mainly to adults. Now they have one pediatric dentist, Dr. David Stewart, but they need more.
The clinic relies on state funding, donations and volunteer providers.
“It doesn’t work if the right pieces don’t fall into place,” Agramont said. “You can have the funds, but not the dentists, or the dentists but not the funds. Like teeth in a smile: if one is missing, it’s not pretty. A local dentist who can donate a few hours a week or month will make a big difference. You can choose the schedule that works best for you.”
Bautista completed her required hours in July and began working at a private clinic in Murray. She has every intention to continue volunteering at Midvale CBC, but can no longer do it full time.
Word of mouth alone keeps the clinic busy. Patients have come from as far away as Tooele and Wendover.
Virtually all of the adults who seek care at the clinic are first-generation immigrants from Latin American countries who work full-time, yet are underinsured or have no insurance at all. They often put off dental treatment as long as possible to avoid missing work or facing costly bills.
Most employees at Midvale CBC are fluent in English and Spanish.
“When I say ‘buenos días’ instead of ‘good morning’ I can see their relief,” said Bautista, who’s native language is Portuguese. “I’m learning both English and Spanish, and the assistants and staff help.”
“All of the dentists make that effort to communicate,” Agramont said. “They learn that basic vocabulary and always have dental assistants that speak Spanish and can step in. When the dentist makes that effort to communicate, that’s the spirt of this clinic.”
“You are here to help, but you can learn, too,” Bautista added. “It’s a learning environment because you can take your time. You can do a procedure that is a little bit more complicated, but you can have an hour, two hours per procedure. We can do really nice dentistry.”
Tiffany Velasco is the dental manager for the clinic. She has also completed the education necessary to become a dentist, but needs to obtain her license from the state.
“My goal is to do the same process as Dr. Bautista,” said Velasco, who is originally from Peru.
Velasco coordinates the volunteers, schedules patients, buys supplies, helps maintain dental records and steps in as an assistant when necessary.
The volunteer dentists are also supported by a team of volunteer dental hygiene students from Salt Lake Community College. Bautista has been the supervising dentist this past year, working at the clinic from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every Thursday.
“Most need a deep cleaning,” Velasco said. “But that’s so expensive. You have to pay out of pocket if you don’t have insurance. It feels great, but $400 is a tough sell for our community. Here you pay $17.”
Midvale CBC’s dental and medical clinic are located at 49 W. Center St. in Midvale.
“It’s a nice place to work,” Bautista said. “We are like a family here. The environment is special. For me it’s so nice, for the people that would never be able to afford a private practice, we change their smiles.”