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Clinic brings smiles for children

Alex Fay had some bad news Thursday -- dentists had just found 10 cavities scattered throughout his mouth while doing a routine cleaning and checkup.

Give Kids a Smile
Alex Fay, 4, looks at registered dental hygienist Cindell Helland as he gets his teeth cleaned Thursday morning during the Give Kids a Smile Day at the Valley Community Health Centers Dental Clinic in Grand Forks. "I'm not scared of this doctor thing," Fay said. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

Alex Fay had some bad news Thursday -- dentists had just found 10 cavities scattered throughout his mouth while doing a routine cleaning and checkup.

But the 4-year-old Grand Forks boy was too preoccupied with his new gifts to pay much attention to that. Fay dug through a goodie bag containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and the item that most fascinated him: a two-minute hourglass to time proper dental hygiene.

"You have to set it like this, and then when all the sand comes down, you stop brushing your teeth," he explained.

Fay was one of 26 local children who went through the Valley Community Health Centers Dental Clinic in Grand Forks as part of the American Dental Association's Give Kids a Smile Day. The program provides preventive education and dental care to children from low-income families who do not otherwise have access to care.

He showed his bravery while sitting in the dentist's chair, boastfully proclaiming, "I'm not scared of this doctor thing." But his mom, Jennifer, said she was anxious when she brought her son to his first dentist appointment.


"It's a rude awakening when you find out your kid has cavities," she said.


Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., was at the clinic Thursday for a tour and a chance to see the impact of $269,000 in federal economic stimulus funding that enabled the clinic to purchase six new dentist chairs and digital X-ray equipment.

It was enough to also hire a new staff member who helps broaden the clinic's reach by connecting new patients with other programs that provide things such as fuel assistance or help pay for medication.

Still, everyone at the clinic acknowledged that much more is needed to keep up with the demand for dental care by low-income families who previously had to drive to Fargo for a similar facility. Pomeroy said it's clear that the need "is so far from met."

Dentist Robert Remmick said it's been "eye-opening" since the clinic opened in November 2007. "We see some 15- or 20-year-old patients who have never seen a dentist before," he said.

For many patients, things as basic as proper brushing and flossing or avoiding sugary drinks have to be taught in order to prevent more dental problems down the road.

Pomeroy called Remmick and fellow dentist Grant Korsmo "the busiest guys in town," a pretty accurate description because their tiny staff has just four dental assistants, a dental hygienist and a receptionist.


"It could be twice that and still be just as busy," Remmick said. But it was enough to handle 2,543 patients and 6,778 appointments last year, some from as far away as Minot.

Korsmo said the incredible demand for affordable dental care, or even just a dentist that will accept Medicaid, surprised everyone. "We

didn't even understand the need when we opened this place up," he said.

A reform model?

They faced some reluctance from the dental community at first, Korsmo said. But things have improved -- Remmick is the president of the Northeast North Dakota Dental Association, and 18 regional dentists will provide further care to children who received checkups Thursday.

"We feel we're just starting to scratch the surface," Korsmo said.

Pomeroy said the clinic, which is part of the federally funded community health center system that allows patients to pay based on what they can afford, could be a model for future health care reform efforts in the federal government.

North Dakota now has four of those facilities but was the 50th state to receive one when a clinic opened in Fargo in the 1990s. Pomeroy said he'd like to see expanded government support for these centers in the state.


Pomeroy also said community health centers should be a big part of the health care reform because they focus on preventative care instead of waiting until a medical problem becomes a matter of life or death, a focus that could provide "a phenomenal savings" to America.

"It's just a much better way to do it than people accessing care they can't pay for at emergency rooms."

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

Give Kids a Smile
Rep. Earl Pomeroy talks to Robert Remmick, left, and Grant Korsmo, right, while touring the Valley Community Health Centers Dental Clinic on Thursday morning during the Give Kids a Smile Day. Remmick and Korsmo are the dentists at the clinic. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

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