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Improving NC access to dental care for people with disabilities

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Friday, December 8, 2023   

Most people probably never give a second thought to their visits to the dentist, but not everyone can navigate this process with ease. People with intellectual or developmental disabilities may face challenges in finding quality dental care.

Dr. Bill Milner founded Access Dental Care with those patients in mind. It's a mobile dental service that makes care more accessible by visiting places such as nursing homes, group-home day centers, PACE programs and retirement communities.

Milner said the goal is to provide a dental home for a population that is too often overlooked.

"We've had to develop our own delivery system," he explained. "It has to be rolled in, five days a week, into different facilities. We treat 15 to 18 patients a day, and then we gather everything up at the end of the day, roll it back out, put it in the truck and go home."

Sponsored by the North Carolina Dental Society, Access Dental Care serves 60 counties in the state, and visits about 160 facilities. Milner has also won this year's American Dental Association Humanitarian Award.

Milner acknowledged that efforts are being made to improve access, but said barriers still exist -- from navigating behaviors to having few providers trained to give specialized care. He said even small changes within the profession can lead to improvements.

"We're having folks roll in, in wheelchairs, into offices -- and they don't know how to transfer folks into dental chairs," he said, "and it's as simple as getting a physical therapist in to train their staff."

Another significant challenge is Medicaid funding for providers, which Milner said typically only reimburses 38 cents for every dollar of the dental bill. Nonetheless, he said, his team will continue to advocate for special-care services, with plans to open more clinics.

Milner sees it as a priority to raise awareness and encourage more dentists to work with these patients.

"We need them to speak up and continue to be advocates for oral health," he noted, "and for them to understand that infection in the mouth is infection in the body."

There is movement on this issue at the state level. In the North Carolina Legislature, Senate Bill 382 would give students the chance to work in the community at nursing homes and group homes. The bill is now in a conference committee and has bipartisan support.

Disclosure: North Carolina Dental Society contributes to our fund for reporting on Education, Health Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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