By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item
SUNBURY — The Susquehanna River Valley Dental Health Clinic is having a banner year for patients, but the brisk business highlights a sad fact — the thin dental care available for low-income and uninsured people.
In general, “this whole area is listed by the federal government for its shortage of dentists,” said Dr. Sylvia Maud Noteware, a dentist who’s been clinical director for a year now.
But if finding general dental care in the Valley is tough, it’s nearly impossible for those who are covered by Medicaid or its three managed care providers.
“This area is way underserved in dentistry for people of limited means,” Noteware said. Many dentists who did take Medicaid patients no longer do because it pays the lowest reimbursement rate possible, and more drop the coverage every year, she said.
“As a result, people don’t get the care they need,” she said. “They keep putting it off until they land in an emergency room seeking relief. But that only takes care of the pain, not the problem.”
The sheer numbers show the clinic’s importance. In fiscal 2012, there were 700 emergency and pain patients treated and 960 new patients of low income. In fiscal 2011, slightly more than 4,700 patients were treated.
With three months left in this fiscal year, there have been nearly 3,500 appointments. In January and February alone, the clinic saw 250 new patients.
The clinic is not free. Its patients are people from Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties covered under Medicaid and its three health-care providers for routine care and emergencies. No private insurance is accepted.
Uninsured patients are seen for emergencies only, and they pay $100 for care. Anything for their treatment above that comes from grant funding. A dental emergency can be anything from extractions (the clinic doesn’t do crowns, teeth are pulled) to treating infections to pain control.
While the need is dire, it’s refreshing the clinic staff is a happy bunch. All testified to enjoying their work because they know it fills a desperate need — not a want — and the patients are very appreciative.
“I love it. I really get to help people in need,” said Nora Zerby, an expanded function dental assistant whose extra training puts her in high demand. She drives in from Spring Mills near State College once a week to work in the clinic.
Dr. Karl Meyer, a dentist retired from the Bureau of Prisons, also works at the clinic on Wednesdays. “I have something to offer, and I wanted to keep my hand in practice,” he said.
Meyer had just treated a woman for whom he’d pulled a tooth, who was smiling despite a cotton guard in her mouth.
“There are not too many places like this,” she said, “and they are wonderful here. They’re all amazing.”
Making the patients feel welcome and cared for is part of the treatment.
“A lot of people don’t have insurance that includes dental,” Zerby said. “And those that do, the coverage is very limited. The average dental coverage hasn’t changed much over the years.”
Noteware said the costs for typical procedures are undercovered by many dental plans. For instance, on average, insurance will cover $800 to $1,000 for a crown, which could run as high as $2,500 depending on the case and materials needed.
Grants from nonprofit foundations fund the clinic, and Noteware is grateful for funding from organizations such as the Degenstein Foundation, Delta Dental, Central Susquehanna Valley Dental Association and churches.
But with business booming as it is, the clinic is seeking more grant funding from other sources.
The clinic, at 335 Market St., is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays.
The phone numbers is 286-7500.