Non-profits and health organizations collaborate to bring dental care to low-income residents

By Gabby LandsverkStaff Writer

Morrison County may be in serious need of dental health care providers, according to the county commissioners and dental health care professionals.

Community and health care leaders from across the state and county met Wednesday to discuss a plan to bring new low-income dental access to the county.

County and community leaders met Wednesday to discuss plans to bring more accesible dental care to low-income residents of Morrison County. Pictured are (from left): South Country Health Alliance Director of Operations Cheri Lewer, Family Health Center Administrator Rhonda Buckallew, County Public Health Director Katy Kirchner, County Commissioner Randy Winscher, Apple Tree Dental Innovation Center Director Cathy Jacobson, Apple Tree CEO and dentist Michael Helgeson, Early Childhood Dental Network Specialist Terry Konczak, County Commissioner Mike Wilson, South Country CEO Leota Lind, County Social Services Director Brad Vold, County Commissioner Duane Johnson and Apple Tree Development Director, Leigh DeBiasse.
County and community leaders met Wednesday to discuss plans to bring more accesible dental care to low-income residents of Morrison County. Pictured are (from left): South Country Health Alliance Director of Operations Cheri Lewer, Family Health Center Administrator Rhonda Buckallew, County Public Health Director Katy Kirchner, County Commissioner Randy Winscher, Apple Tree Dental Innovation Center Director Cathy Jacobson, Apple Tree CEO and dentist Michael Helgeson, Early Childhood Dental Network Specialist Terry Konczak, County Commissioner Mike Wilson, South Country CEO Leota Lind, County Social Services Director Brad Vold, County Commissioner Duane Johnson and Apple Tree Development Director, Leigh DeBiasse.

The project, called the Morrison County Dental Initiative, would be a collaboration between county officials, South Country Health Alliance and non-profit Apple Tree Dentistry  to establish new dental providers in Little Falls and expand access to the surrounding area.

Other community organizations, including CHI St. Gabriel’s Health and the Little Falls Initiative Foundation, expressed interest in supporting and being involved with the project.

Data collected by CHI St. Gabriel’s Health in 2013 found Morrison County ranked 62nd of out 87 Minnesota counties in clinical care, and had only one dental provider for every 3,374 people, compared with a statewide rating of one for every 1,660 Minnesotans.

Cheri Lewer, director of operations at South Country said patients “continue to struggle with access” to services in Morrison County.

Currently, businesses in the county that offer dental services aren’t a part of the South Country network and aren’t accepting Medicaid, Lewer said; as a result, patients seeking dental care have to travel to Brainerd, St. Cloud or as far as Alexandria to find a suitable provider.

“Our concern is that members are having to travel, which makes it difficult to contain the cost of care,” Lewer said. “There is a need for dental providers close to home.”

Brad Vold, director of Morrison County Social Services, said that low-income residents have difficulty finding the time and money to get dental services, which means many people aren’t getting preventative dental treatment at all.

“They end up waiting until the last minute and then it becomes a crisis,” Vold said.

Apple Tree CEO and dentist Michael Helgeson proposed a solution in the form of a new, centrally-located hub for dental services to be established in Morrison County, from which mobile dentistry care teams could travel wherever needed to improve access in schools, nurses homes and clinics.

As part of the development process, Apple Tree leaders said they intend to contact other local dentists and let them know about the project.

“We’re not in the business of taking other people’s patients. That’s why we have a great relationship with other providers,” said Helgeson.

The next step for the initiative will be to meet with leaders of St. Gabriel’s and determine if a space on its campus could be designated for the initiative’s dental services.

Members of the initiative suggested starting with smaller, mobile care units that would help provide immediate relief to residents lacking dental services.

Besides the hospital, other possible locations for temporary mobile dental units included the Government Center.

Helgeson said the goal of the initiative is collaboration between Apple Tree, South Country and other health and community leaders to complete a long-term business plan, which could eventually include a new, full-service dental health center.

“This is a very vital area for a permanent site,” Helgeson said. “These things take time, but the time pays off and you see good results.”