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Dental clinic serving low-income patients expanding in Cedar Rapids
Need propels $3.25M project at Eastern Iowa Health Center
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Eastern Iowa Health Center is expanding its dental clinic.
The Cedar Rapids-based community health center, a federally qualified safety net provider for low-income and other vulnerable populations, has announced it will build a $3.25 million dental clinic that will more than double the number of patients it sees annually.
“Not only are we going to serve a whole lot more patients, but also we’re going to add new jobs and increase the overall economy,” said Joe Lock, president and CEO of the Eastern Iowa Health Center.
The project will expand the health center’s dental clinic, at 1225 Third Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids, from its current 2,995 square feet to 8,000 square feet and will increase the number of dental chairs to 18.
The Eastern Iowa Health Center will hire 15 new positions for the expanded dental clinic, including three dentists and four dental hygienists.
Once fully operational, the clinic will be able to see 22,500 patients per year — a major increase from its current 9,100 patients.
Iowa dental needs
The center is expanding its dental clinic to meet the “overwhelming demand” for dental services from Medicaid patients, who often struggle to find dentists willing to accept Medicaid reimbursement.
About 70 percent of the health center’s patients each month are on Medicaid, meaning they are at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Across the five-county region served by the health center, about half the residents are living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, officials say.
As a federally qualified health center, the center receives a cost-based reimbursement from the federal government for each service.
Medicaid reimbursements for private dentists and other dental providers, on the other hand, usually don’t cover the cost to provide these services, Lock said.
“Medicaid is underfunded,” Lock said. “That’s why if there are any dentists in Linn County that are taking Medicaid, its very few and they’re doing it out of generosity.”
As a result, tens of thousands of low-income patients across the five-county service area are likely not accessing dental care, according to an assessment by a third party researcher.
In total, 48,988 adults and children — which represents 55 percent all area residents enrolled in Medicaid — did not access dental care in fiscal year 2020, according to the assessment by D4 Practice Solutions.
That includes about a fifth of the adult population in the five-county area, or roughly 65,000 individuals aged 18 and older, who are not accessing dental services.
The Eastern Iowa Health Center’s dental clinic, which opened six years ago, is operating at 102 percent capacity because of emergency appointments seen every day at the clinic.
“We have been at capacity for the last several years, and we knew there was an overwhelming demand,” Lock said.
Because demand for dental services is so high, officials are limiting which patients it can accommodate within the new dental clinic for comprehensive services. Priority will be given to veterans, children, pregnant women, refugees or recent immigrants, those with uncontrolled diabetes and those needing medical clearance for surgeries.
The patients will have access to other clinic services, allowing providers to care for the whole patient rather than just addressing individual concerns.
As part of that goal, a dental hygienist who will be located at the family medical clinic next door, where patients can receive on-site dental screenings for themselves or their children while at their appointment, said Jennifer Borcherding, the clinic’s director of development and community relations.
These exams will be key for the clinic’s youngest patients. The hygienist can provide checkups on teeth before a child is 2 years old and will instruct parents on good oral hygiene.
“I'm hoping that it's going to be a catalyst to change the conversation about how oral health care really needs to be integrated into overall wellness,” Borcherding said
Officials tentatively plan to break ground in June, with an opening projected for spring 2023.
Lock said they still need to finish raising funds for the expansion before The Eastern Iowa Health Center has raised $2.1 million of the $3.25 million project’s cost.
The total includes $500,000 from the health center, a $500,000 grant from the Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation and a $648,000 federal capital grant through the American Rescue Plan Act. The center also received a $500,000 loan from the East Central Iowa Council of Governments.
“We’re two-thirds of the way there for this $3.25 million project, so we’re still seeking funding from other sources to close that million dollar gap,” Lock said.
In the future, Eastern Iowa Health Center officials would like to move its obstetrics and gynecology clinic from northeast Cedar Rapids to a location in the MedQuarter.
Many of the health center’s patients, Lock said, live in southwest Cedar Rapids, meaning they have two bus rides to reach the clinic now, Lock said.
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