Lack of funding closes free dental clinic
By Jon Hawley
Thursday, February 16, 2017
CURRITUCK — For the last five years, Dr. Ed Houser has dedicated his “retirement” to providing free dental care to northeastern North Carolinians who can’t afford it.
He estimates 3,500 people across the region have used his clinic in Currituck County and received $800,000 worth of free care.
His clinic closed last fall, and it’s not clear it will reopen.
Funding has dried up for the clinic, Houser said in an interview Wednesday. That includes money that Albemarle Regional Health Services decided earlier this month to stop contributing toward the clinic’s utilities, Houser said.
He says the funding from ARHS could have helped keep the clinic open while he sought more, stable funding, but the regional health agency decided against funding a clinic that’s closed.
Not criticizing ARHS’ decision, Houser acknowledged “the clinic’s problem is sustainability.” However, the clinic provided a service that’s still very much needed. Northeastern North Carolina has many poor residents who can’t afford dental care and only a few dozen dentists, he said.
To that point, 2014 studies estimated North Carolina ranked 47th out of 50 states in dentists per 100,000 people, and the ratio of dentists to population was even worse in the five-county region of Currituck, Camden, Pasquotank, Perquimans and Chowan.
Houser said his clinic, based in Grandy, “rebuilt people’s mouths” and even helped some greatly improve their circumstances. Local dentists have said oral health can be important to proper nutrition and overall health, as well as self-confidence.
“You’re able to change people’s lives,” Houser said. “I’ve found it more fulfilling and satisfying than my private practice (before retirement).”
Houser said it’s not clear to him if the clinic will reopen, or what service will replace it. He said the clinic cost about $45,000 a year to operate, including paying dental assistants. Houser didn’t pay himself a salary. To run the clinic as a normal practice, including paying a dentist and administrative staff, could cost $175,000 a year, he said.
Houser, 70, also said he’s “worn out” after trying to address such a large need with so few resources. In addition to the dental care, he said he’s spent a lot of time fundraising, including applying for numerous small grants.
“For my sake, I’m looking for someone to replace me,” Houser said.
The East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine is working to do that, said its dean, Dr. Greg Chadwick in a phone interview Wednesday. The school is working to train the next generation of dentists, he said, and encourage them to practice where they’re needed. The school also provides low-cost care and, Chadwick noted, hosted a free dental clinic in Elizabeth City last March.
Chadwick also praised Houser as a “one-man show” who tried to take on the region’s “dire” need for more dentists. He said the region may have only 15 or so licensed dentists. To match the national rate of dentists per population, the area needs to roughly quadruple its practicing dentists, he said.
“We’re swimming upstream just like Dr. Houser,” Chadwick said.
Chadwick added that, due to a slow economic recovery, many people are struggling to get by, let alone pay for dental and other medical care. He also said that Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled, should cover more people and more services, and at a better reimbursement rate.
Dental Medicaid often leaves single, working adults without coverage, he noted, and their coverage doesn’t pay the full cost of care. He estimated half the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s patients are on Medicaid. As a result, the school barely covers its expenses, he said.