Taylor county residents who need dental care, such as a filling or extraction, but can’t afford it can benefit from a collaboration between Christian Service Center, Abilene-Taylor County Public Health District and the county’s Social Services department.
Funded through a $40,000 grant via Community Foundation of Abilene, the program builds on an existing model for dental care used by the nonprofit center and also serves as something of a replacement for a city dental program that had to shut down due to budget issues.
It also serves to replace services previously offered through Abilene’s Presbyterian Medical Care Mission.
Annette Lerma, director of the Public Health District, said grant dollars will help pay participating dentists a $150 fee to help offset out-of-pocket expenses, an incentive that she and others hope encourages even more to participate.
The program asks those who qualify contribute $20, which will go toward the dentist providing the service.
Jim Clark, Christian Service Center’s executive director, said his organization regularly works with around six or seven dentists that serve “neighbors” — the agency’s preferred term for clients — who need dental services.
“They will do an extraction or a filling once a month, and they do it pro bono,” he said.
But demand has always been greater than the number of available dentists.
The need for relief is real, Clark said, since many people in poverty don’t seek help from a dentist until tooth pain becomes unbearable.
Clark said the number of dentists involved has grown to “at least a dozen,” and could possibly grow further.
He expects the expanded program will “at least double” the amount of people able to be helped.
Looking for solutions
Lerma said that ever since the city’s dental program was cut for budgetary reasons, she had wanted to explore options to fill what she saw as a “very large gap in dental services for those who are in pain.”
“Although we had a reduced cost dental program, it never filled the gap left by the closing of the Medical Care Mission’s dental clinic,” Lerma said.
She originally wanted to seek grant dollars for local dentists to “donate” two to four hours a month to come see patients at the health department’s clinic, using funds to cover supply costs.
“But after visiting with Jim Clark at the CSC and seeing how his dental program was working, we thought it would be best to just try and expand the scope of that program,” she said.
The key, she said, was finding funds to entice more dentists to participate.
Sending patients out for care, instead of seeing them at the health department, made sense because it eliminates the need to reinstate a dental electronic health record system, Lerma said.
And expecting dentists to function in a clinic where everything is different from their own “didn’t seem realistic,” she said.
“So I gathered together all the key stakeholders to brainstorm how we could make this work, and we talked through who could contribute what piece,” she said.
Lerma filled out the grant application and submitted it to the CFA with backing and input from a variety of local agencies, including Taylor County, United Way of Abilene, Medical Care Mission and the 17th District Dental Society.
“It’s been a labor of love from a lot of people who see the unmet need,” she said. “… It has been amazing to see the collaboration.”
Taylor County’s involvement in the project comes through its Social Services department, said Roseann Seelke, its director.
Social Service serves some of the county’s most vulnerable residents, she said, including those who “at the lowest of the poverty level and are doing their very best to meet their daily living needs.”
“Our goal is to alleviate the financial, healthcare, and dental burdens of our most vulnerable county citizens in any way which we feasibly can,” she said.
The county saw a clear opportunity to help, Seelke said, removing the need for an administrative personnel position, which would take funds away from serving people.
Taylor County’s Indigent Health Care Program was already equipped with software that could help the Christian Service Center, Seelke said, including determining financial eligibility.
It also has staff available “willing and able to do whatever it takes to alleviate the dental pain that our citizens are experiencing,” she said.
“I personally offered the administrative services of our department as an in-kind contribution from Taylor County,” Seelke said, with a goal of coordinating services and making the process fluid “from application through dental services rendered.”
Clark said he was proud of the work each of the agencies contributed.
And he thinks its collaborative model is something that can work to fill a variety of needs.
“Part of our vision is to expand and get more partners in the community, whether they’re Christian ministries, the city or other organizations,” he said. “We can’t do it all ourselves. Together, we can do a lot more.”
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
How to apply for dental help
Residents may benefit from the program once per year and must live in Taylor County.
Those who qualify must be:
►At or below 250% of the Federal Poverty Level.
►Must not have dental insurance
►Must be experiencing dental pain.
The program only offers extractions or a filling. Dentures and restorative care are not provided.
How to apply:
Pick up and turn in an application at 400 Oak St., Suite 202.
Paper applications also are available at the Abilene-Taylor County Public Health District, 850 North Sixth St., or at Presbyterian Medical Care Mission, 1857 Pine St., Suite 100.
Online applications are available at: https://taylorcountytexas.org/180/General-Assistance-Program
Applicants approved will need to go to the Christian Service Center, 3185 North 10th St., to schedule their appointment.