MIDVALE — Jorge Gonzalez hasn't been feeling well.
On Thursday, he stopped at the Mid-Valley Health Clinic for a physical. As the medical staff took note of his height and weight, checked his vitals and screened his vision, he also mentioned he tries to take care of his teeth.
"It's a big deal to me," he said, but it is somewhat inconvenient to keep up on his oral health as Gonzalez is uninsured.
The health center partners with various providers throughout the valley but still comes up short on appointment slots, as dentists are already busy with their own clientele. And because of high cost margins, oral health care is difficult to find at little or no cost.
"Dental needs are tremendous in the state of Utah," said Kurt Micka, executive director at Utah Partners for Health, which runs the Mid-Valley clinic and other access points for underserved Utahns. He said an internal needs assessment revealed that nearly half of all children and adults screened had prior tooth decay or untreated cavities.
"A lot of the kids we see never see a dentist," Micka said. And adults, he added, "don't have the opportunity for restorative care" and end up losing teeth when problems get bad enough.
Utah health centers are getting $1.4 million in federal funds to expand access to oral health care services at four public health clinic locations: Carbon Medical Service Association, Southwest Utah Community Health Center in St. George, Utah Navajo Health System in Montezuma Creek, and the Mid-Valley Health Center.
Each will get $350,000, and Micka said that's easy to spend when it comes to expensive dental equipment.
Unless the city approves an adjacent building, Micka is planning to add three dental chairs to the relatively new behavioral health center on Main Street in Midvale. He said the facility would be able to provide preventive dental care, including cleanings, exams, X-rays, sealants and fluoride treatments, as well as treat some cavities and provide other dental needs for approximately 1,800 patients each year.
"It's always been a goal of ours," Micka said. "Dental care is probably our chief need."
Currently, patients who visit public health centers with oral health needs end up having bothersome teeth pulled or are referred to a small number of local dentists who will offer care free of charge.
"If you don't do preventive dental visits and take care of gingivitis, gum disease and toothaches when it happens, it can put you at higher risk for medical problems," said Dr. Lyle Greenwood, Mid-Valley's medical director. He said it is easiest to preventively address those problems.
Putting off treatment, Greenwood said, can result in more costly conditions down the road.
"A lot of our patients have really poor teeth," he said. Greenwood cautions patients who may not have access to proper dental care to proactively protect their teeth by quitting smoking and avoiding soda.
Limited dental care is offered at some clinics throughout the state, but the number of people looking to access it is overwhelming, Micka said. The Utah Partners for Health service area, which includes communities from Midvale to Magna and Sandy to Glendale, has one dentist for every 7,708 people — 54 percent beyond the nationally acceptable ratio of 5,000 to 1.
Utah's clinic locations getting federal help to expand oral health care access are four of 420 health centers in 47 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico that will be receiving grant money for this purpose. In all, nearly $156 million will be doled out to participants in the national Health Resources and Services Administration Health Center Program.
"Oral health is an important part of our overall physical health and well-being," said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, who announced the community health center grant recipients last week. "The funding we are awarding will reduce barriers to quality dental care for hundreds of thousands of Americans by bringing new oral health providers to health centers across the country."
In addition to expanding oral health, Utah Partners for Health also operates a mobile medical clinic that provides free care to uninsured individuals with household incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The clinic collaborates with school districts, churches and other nonprofit agencies to remove barriers in accessing care.
Micka said the organization, which opened the clinic in 2014, always planned on offering dental care, but with the federal grant, it is becoming a reality at least three years sooner than expected. He said the facility will be operational in November.