Most local residents now have to travel to nonprofit dental clinics in Hawley, Fergus Falls, Park Rapids, Moorhead, Bemidji and Halstad — and even then there’s often a long wait for an appointment, said Jane Neubauer, dental services coordinator with Partnership4Health.
Apple Tree Dental clinic in Hawley has a waiting list of about 1,300 people, while the newly-expanded Apple Tree Dental clinic in Fergus Falls has a waiting list of about 800 people, she said.
Neubauer spoke at separate meetings of the Detroit Lakes City Council and the Becker County Board of Commissioners last week.
There are only five dentists that serve Minnesota health care programs recipients in the entire region, including one that exclusively handles people with special needs, she said.
“It’s a real problem,” she said in an interview. The various mobile dental clinics that come through the Detroit Lakes area just can’t keep up with demand, and travel can be difficult for people without much money.
The need is great: There were more than 11,000 Becker County residents aged zero to 69 enrolled in one of the Minnesota Health Care Programs in 2019, but only about a third of them saw a dentist in 2019.
(The exception is young people ages 6 to 20. Nearly 57% of them received dental care in 2019.)
Neubauer said she is part of a committee that has been meeting to review the dental access problems in the region and working to address them.
“We’ve been talking to Apple Tree Dental and Northern Dental Access (in Bemidji) to see if they are interested in partnering on a building in Detroit Lakes,” she said. “They’re having some discussions about what a combined effort might look like as far as providing services here.”
The next step is to hire a planner to do a feasibility study and a formal business plan, she added. “That will give us some formal structure as to what a building might look like and who would run it.”
She met with the Detroit Lakes and Becker County elected officials to keep them in the loop and ask for their support. “We’re looking for additional stakeholders from the Detroit Lakes community to join us in this planning process,” she said. “We have to get our ducks in a row before we start fundraising.”
The meetings with the city council and county board went well, she said: “The city had some very valid questions about the problem. Overall it was very optimistic and positive. The county was very, very supportive of the idea.”
Minnesota has long had a dismal record of supporting dental care for lower-income people.
According to the Larkin Hoffman law firm, a 2018 study by the Health Policy Institute of the American Dental Association found that Minnesota’s Medicaid program (Medical Assistance) ranked 49th out of 50 states for pediatric dental reimbursement and 47th in adult dental reimbursement.
This year, the Legislature (bolstered by federal stimulus dollars) took strong action, targeting $61 million to boost the state’s MA reimbursement rates for dental care. After Jan. 1, that will mean an across-the-board increase of approximately 98% for private dentists working on low-income patients.
“I do believe there’s hope,” Neubauer said. “I do believe the Detroit Lakes community has what it takes to do this long-term process.”