Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger wants to expand the reach of a mobile medical clinic serving the needy with a second unit to provide dental care for Pasco County's poorest children, the homeless and others without health insurance. He is asking the Legislature for $160,000 in the upcoming state budget to operate the mobile dental clinic in a partnership with the state Health Department. Legislators should honor Dillinger's request to finance this much-needed service.
And there should be no need for the clandestine budgeting as there was two year ago when then-Sen. Mike Fasano circumvented a potential gubernatorial veto by quietly tucking $165,000 into the public defender's budget to hire a nurse practitioner and driver for the medical van. That unit has proven to be a valuable tool in aiding the homeless and uninsured by treating minor injuries and medical concerns before they balloon into more serious conditions requiring costly emergency room visits and hospitalization. The state should be eager to duplicate the success of the medical clinic, which serves 200 patients each month during visits to shelters, soup kitchens, drop-in centers, churches and other locations where the homeless gather.
Sadly, the dental clinic has the potential for an even greater patient list because of the shrinking pool of dentists accepting Medicaid payments and because of the state's historically poor performance in ensuring needy children receive preventive dental care. A 2013 Pew Charitable Trust survey found three-quarters of Florida's juvenile Medicaid patients failed to receive dental care. Having a mobile clinic should help curb one significant hurdle to receiving care — reaching families who lack reliable transportation.
The largest target audience for the dental clinic will be Pasco County schools where 36,000 students (54 percent) qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The amount of poverty is significantly worse at the 34 Title 1 schools where the number of needy children can be above 90 percent in some locations. If equipped with two chairs, the dental clinic is expected to be able to treat 16 patients daily. Currently, patients at the mobile medical clinic can only be issued referrals for services elsewhere.
Plans call for the state Health Department to spend a previously allocated $350,000 for a 37-foot-long vehicle and dental equipment, while Dillinger's office pays the operating costs and Pasco County handles the maintenance. If successful, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has ambitions to extend the service to Hernando County one day per month.
It's a worthwhile partnership that has proven successful with the mobile medical units in both Pinellas and Pasco counties. Legislators should ensure the service can be emulated for dental service as well to provide basic oral care to needy Pasco residents.