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Demand for services skyrockets at HealthNet dental clinic

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Shelly Birkelo
Friday, December 23, 2016

JANESVILLE—Demand for services at HealthNet of Rock County's dental clinic has skyrocketed 172 percent since HealthNet began accepting BadgerCare patients July 5.

That doesn't surprise Executive Director Ian Hedges, who is aware of the desperate need for dental care among lower-income Rock County residents.  

The overwhelming response has created both a problem and an opportunity.

Hedges predicts the clinic will have enough money to meet demand through June 30, 2017, the end of the current fiscal year. However, it will run $63,000 short if it provides the same level of care the next year.

To make up the difference, Hedges is getting more creative and aggressive in fundraising and grant requests to local and national organizations.

Fortunately, his efforts are paying off.

ONLY THE UNINSURED

When it opened its doors in 2007, the dental clinic at 1344 Creston Park Drive, Suite 2, served only the uninsured. But earlier this year, HealthNet officials decided it was time to expand the pool of patients.

About 27,500 Rock County residents are enrolled in BadgerCare, the state-sponsored health insurance plan for people who earn too much to be covered by Medicaid, Hedges said. HealthNet used to receive about 10 calls a day from BadgerCare participants trying to find dental care.

Dental care was highlighted as a need in a 2014 Rock County Health Needs Assessment, but the cost of serving low-income patients is high. According to a study by the American Dental Association, Wisconsin's Medicaid reimbursement rate for dental care is one of the lowest in the country.

Hedges said during one two-week period recently, HealthNet's dental clinic performed $23,000 worth of work on BadgerCare patients and was reimbursed $3,500 by the state.

To pay the costs of treating BadgerCare patients, the dental clinic increased its $2 million budget by $150,000 with fundraisers and grants. The money has helped pay for a new part-time dentist, a dental assistant and a dental clinic manager.

When the clinic expanded its days of operation in July, Dr. Zach Gregerson began serving BadgerCare patients three of those days.

Two weeks later, the schedule was booked 2 1/2 months out, Hedges said.

Today, those seeking immediate care are worked in when a patient does not show up for an appointment. People who need regular dental care wait about a month to see the dentist, he said.

COMMUNITY HELP

Hedges' efforts to boost HealthNet's budget have been fruitful.

HealthNet recently partnered with SSM Health St. Mary's Janesville Hospital, which agreed to match up to $3,500 on Giving Tuesday. The clinic raised $15,340 that day during the 24-hour global day of giving the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.

The Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin's Janesville Generations Fund awarded HealthNet $15,000 to buy another X-ray machine. The machine has two sensors that reduce the time needed to process and develop film, which will help the dental clinic see more patients. The state reimburses the clinic 29 cents of every dollar for adults and 32 to 33 cents of every dollar for children.

The local foundation also made a financial commitment to the dental clinic for next year.

Hedges has applied for grants from the American Dental Association and American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. He said he should know any day if the ADA approved his request, and he'll find out in January about the AAPD grant.

He also hopes Delta Dental and the Janesville Foundation will continue their financial support.

FILLING A NEED

HealthNet officials predict that as their dental patient roster increases, the number of people seeking emergency help from local health systems will drop.

HealthNet did a study with Mercyhealth in the first four years after its dental clinic opened in 2007. Over that time, the number of people who sought treatment in Mercy's emergency room for oral health complications declined 31 percent, Hedges said.

“We knew once we were able to provide (dental) care they would come, and it would make them healthier," he said. "They wanted to get preventative care and knew going to the ER was not a good way to get things done.”



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