Earlier this week, the Wright County Board of Commissioners and several department employees met with three state legislators that represent the county to discuss issues of importance to Wright County for the coming legislative session. Among those topics was the dire need for a dental clinic for people on medical assistance (MA) or use Minnesota Care that currently are being underserved.
Wright County Commissioner Darek Vetsch said that the lack of dental clinics that handle MA or Minnesota Care patients is not just a problem in Wright County. It’s an issue that impacts statewide.
“This is a regional need, not just a local need,” Vetsch said. “If you live in Wright County and are on MA or Minnesota Care, you have to travel anywhere from a half hour to well more than an hour to get to the nearest dentist that will care for you. It’s a real problem.”
Vetsch said Wright County actually has things better than other areas of Central Minnesota, where the nearest clinics are a greater distance away. Even a large city like St. Cloud is in the same boat as Wright County, just farther away from care.
“St. Cloud is a much bigger city than most and it doesn’t have one of these dental centers either,” Vetsch said. “They’re struggling just like us. They’re sending people very far away – either way up north or down to Brooklyn Park to get dental care for MA clients. Right now, there are only handful of places in the Twin Cities that take these patients and there are very few in outstate Minnesota.”
Where Wright County is looking to make a difference is by lobbying the State Legislature to fund building a clinic. Unlike other entities that might be looking to do a similar project, their costs would be markedly more than Wright County’s plan because of the circumstances that could potentially get a clinic funded in Buffalo.
When the county began preparing for the construction of the new Government Center, there were areas that were going to be intentionally left unused (shelled space) during the initial construction to be utilized for future expansion years later as needed. One such space is in the southwest corner of the ground floor and, if funding can be supplied by the Legislature, it would be transformed into a clinic.
“There has been a lot of discussion about having a dental clinic be part of the Government Center project,” Wright County Administrator Lee Kelly said. “The shelled space would be a good fit to put it there and the cost to have it there would be much less than if someone had to rent space or construct a building. We have the building here and we hope the State Legislature will see the value of appropriating funds to get it done.”
For several years, the county’s Public Health Task Force has been working on this initiative and was instrumental in getting the matter in front of county leaders and the Wright County Board to make the clinic a priority for the county to lobby the state for funding.
The legislative delegation that met with county officials this week seemed receptive to idea of making the clinic a regional project rather than just a Wright County project. They urged the county to seek out resolutions of support from the county boards of surrounding counties, as well as letters of support from hospitals in Buffalo, Monticello, St. Cloud and Waconia to help demonstrate the widespread need for the clinic.
Vetsch said Wright County will make the effort to obtain funding because those impacted the most are in the worst position to try to fix the problem.
“It’s sad,” Vetsch said. “If you have kids that are in foster care, that are on MA or low-income families, they’re being burdened to travel great distances just to get dental care or, worse yet, do nothing and make a bad situation worse because they can’t travel those distances.”
Another pitfall of the current system is the lack of available clinics. Not only is distance a hurdle, but so is being able to get in for an appointment. Due to the lack of supply, the demand has created backlogs that have significantly delayed the time in between trying to get in for a dental visit and when patients can be seen.
“Because so many people have to go so far and there are so few of these clinics available, if you schedule an appointment, you are typically a couple of months out before you can be seen,” Vetsch said. “If you have a serious dental problem, it just makes it worse knowing you’re going to have wait several weeks just to get seen.”
Vetsch said it’s difficult to blame dentists for not wanting to take on medical assistance or Minnesota Care patients. The system in which the program is run is not advantageous for private dental practices to take on, especially as the patients get older.
“You can find dentists that will treat kids on MA that are 11 and under, but once they get 12 and older, most of them will stop taking those clients,” Vetsch said. “There are several problems that come along with it that dentists would rather avoid. The reimbursement is low on it, the services required by the clients are high because they often haven’t had their teeth properly taken care of over time and the reimbursement payback time period is stretched out, too. When you don’t get a lot of money, you have to wait a long time to get that money, the paperwork needed to get the money is really challenging and many of the clients are people that come in with teeth in really bad shape, it makes it very undesirable for dentists.”
If the county can’t secure state funding, the clinic likely won’t be coming. But, it is hoped that, with a concerted effort made between Wright County, neighboring counties and area health care providers, a dental clinic on the ground floor of the Government Center will become a reality.