By as soon as September, more dental care should be available to needy Pasco County residents.
The University of Florida College of Dentistry has agreed to send a resident to the Pasco County Health Department's indigent dental program, and it will open its St. Petersburg clinic to Pasco residents.
The expansion will help more patients get services and make more services available for patients with expensive dental problems, Pasco officials said.
"I need to get my foot in the door and then we can look at what more we can do," said Dr. Nery Clark, the dental school's associate dean for extramural programs. "First you have to get in and then you can grow from there."
The health department's 5-year-old program, 10841 Little Road, could use the help, program director Dr. Ray Anel said. Anel is program's only dentist. He sees about 50 patients a week, providing exams, X-rays, cleanings, minor fillings and minor extractions.
Anel's program provides services, which are free to the clients, for Medicaid patients ages 3 to 21, Healthy Start Coalition clients and HIV patients. Adults can receive treatment but are charged a fee determined by their income.
Having a resident from UF will allow Anel to treat more patients, health department officials said.
"The need for dental services for indigent is awesome _ bigger than medical care," said Dr. Marc Yacht, the health department director. "Dental is a gateway to a lot of diseases. It matches with immunization and child/maternal health as a prevention program."
It's not uncommon for Anel to see a pregnant patient who has never before seen a dentist, he said.
Some of those patients have serious problems. Until now, there really hasn't been anywhere for them to go, Yacht said. The St. Petersburg program, which charges about half the market rate for its procedures, is booked three months in advance, and the patients can't afford a standard dental bill, Clark and Yacht said.
It doesn't yet have a method for getting patients to St. Petersburg _ where UF students, residents and other dentists treat more serious dental problems _ but the clinic will begin creating openings for Pasco-referred clients, UF's Clark said.
The move comes after state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, helped the program re-secure funding this spring, and after years of requests from Yacht.
"The need to improve access is very critical," Yacht said. "This is another step in that direction."
_ Ryan Davis covers higher education and social services in Pasco. He can be reached at (800) 333-7505. ext. 3452.