HUDSON — Uninsured and can't get affordable dental care in west Pasco? Blame the feds. And Mr. Thirsty.
The dental device that sucks water from dental patients' mouths, nicknamed Mr. Thirsty by some pediatric dentists, requires changes to the Mike Fasano Regional Hurricane Shelter before dental care can be offered there. Because the shelter is a federal building that must meet FEMA standards, any changes take federal approval. Which could take months.
Meanwhile Premier Community Health Care, which planned to open a dental office there, is instead opening a medical clinic until federal approval can be obtained. The original plan was to offer both, but Premier was unable to get federal money. It got a state grant for $1.25 million and decided to limit services to dental to remain self-sustaining. Premier officials cited the huge need for affordable dental services, as few dentists accept Medicaid coverage.
"Due to the very strict regulations and limitations to any interior and exterior changes, installing dental equipment may compromise the integrity of the building," Premier CEO Kim Schuknecht said. "We are moving forward to make the necessary contractual changes and will provide primary care such as pediatrics, family practice and/or behavioral health in this facility in the future once all issues have been resolved."
But it could be summer before the clinic in the $7.7 million shelter on Denton Avenue treats its first medical patient. Because the state money must flow through the county, the clinic must contract with the county for services. Right now, that contract is strictly for dental work. It must be rewritten to reflect the switch to medical services. That should take about 60 days.
"That contract was very specific," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who helped secure the state money and donations of dental equipment. He said Premier feared it would lose the money if it went unspent or was used for something other than what was listed in the contract. Fasano said he would be able to make sure the money could carry over past June 30, the end of the state's fiscal year.
"I'm not a fan of President Obama's health care reform," he said. "But these federally qualified health clinics are working. They are giving primary care patients affordable care while keeping them out of the emergency room."
In the meantime, patients can continue to get medical care at Premier's clinic behind Morton Plant North Bay Hospital, where the Dade City-based agency expanded in 2009.
Funding there, though, remains uncertain amid budget battles in Washington, D.C. Federal stimulus dollars dried up this week, leaving Premier executives concerned that the New Port Richey clinic would have to shut down. However the feds did provide a 90-day extension, which they hope will keep the clinic afloat until budget issues are resolved.
That's important, Schuknecht said, because so many people rely on the clinic for services.
The facility, which serves uninsured patients as well as those with Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance, has logged more than 3,000 visits in the 20 months since it opened.
"I have confidence that the budget issues will be resolved and future funding will be provided to continue these much needed services," she said.
The agency already provides dental services at its clinics in Dade City and Zephyrhills.