New clinic increases access to dental care for Missouri children

The Children's Smile Center opened Tuesday in Aurora, Mo. The clinic serves children on Medicaid.

AURORA, Mo. -- A new clinic in the Ozarks makes it possible for more children to get the dental care they need.  The Children's Smile Center in Aurora will offer care to another 500 Ozarks children per month.  That's in addition to the 750 who already receive care at the smile clinics in Ozark and Branson West.

The clinic is part of a solution to a problem of access in Missouri. A dental care study by the PEW Charitable Trusts showed 63 percent of Missouri children enrolled in Medicaid received no dental care in 2011.  That is in part because only 11 percent of dentists in the state accept Medicaid patients.

"Pain is the number one reason they come in," said Dr. Tom Hoff, a dentist who works at the clinic three days a week.

Education is a key part of every appointment at the Children's Smile Center.  The new clinic opened Tuesday, becoming part of only eleven percent of dental offices in Missouri, that accept children on Medicaid.

Hoff said most children he sees are already experiencing pain due to poor hygeine, and that typically affects their school performance and self-esteem.

"Hopefully we catch it before it gets too bad and they're in too much pain and save the tooth.  That's kind of our main goal," Hoff said.

According to the Missouri Dental Association, the State of Missouri pays dental clinics 38 cents per dollar in Medicaid reimbursements.  That is well below the estimated 75 cents per dollar that the association says most clinics face in overhead costs alone.  The Smile Center makes up the shortage in other ways.

"We supplement that with donations, grants, and special event funding that helps us be able to provide the services that we do," said Jackie Barger, the executive director of the clinic.

The most difficult part accessing dental care for most Medicaid families is finding a way to get to and from their appointments, according to Barger.  That is what makes the new location so unique.  Aurora is within about 20 miles of more than dozen other small towns in the area.

"I was excited, because that's one less trip we have to make all the way into Springfield, and we can stay local," said Stephanie Henry, a mother of five boys, from Mt. Vernon, Mo.

"I had one that was extremely nervous and didn't want to come, but he came out smiling, and that means the best thing for me," Henry said.

The Children's Smile Clinic in Aurora is for children eligible for Medicaid.  Barger said that includes an estimated 50 percent of kids in the region.  The Aurora clinic serves children up to age 19 from Christian, Lawrence, Barry and Stone counties.