Leon County Kids Get Low-cost Dental Care

Kids get dental care from Molar Express


Manav Malik tried to reassure Derrick Adams, 10, recently as he gave him an X-ray at the Leon County Health Departments dental center.

“Youre doing so good, you know that?” Malik said. “Were almost done here.”

Malik, a student at the University of Florida College of Dentistry, had to give Derrick a numbing shot before filling a cavity. Instead of using the scary word “needle,” he told the boy hed be getting some “sleepy juice.” And rather than using a drill, he summoned “Mr. Whistle” to get rid of the tooth decay.

“If they have a bad experience now, theyre scarred for the rest of their lives,” he later explained.

The Center for Dental Care & Prevention on Railroad Avenue isnt a typical dentists office. Nicknamed “The Molar Express” because of its train-station theme, it treats patients between the ages of 5 and 20. The youngsters are on Medicaid, and without the facility, theyd have nowhere to go for dental care besides the emergency room.

The dental center, the largest public-health dental facility in Florida, opened last year on Railroad Avenue next to the Amtrak Station. Although it serves some 4,000 young patients, the Health Department would have to open several more clinics of its size to meet the community need. Thats because in 2004, some 25,000 children in Leon County were on Medicaid, said Dr. Ed Zapert, dental executive director. Local dentists dont accept Medicaid payments because reimbursements are low.

“The need for dental care is so great in Leon County,” Zapert said. “Well never really meet the entire need – were just trying to see as many as possible. “

The center provides routine dental work, including cleanings, fillings, extractions and the use of protective sealants. Workers also teach kids the importance of brushing and flossing.

“We have some kids with perfect teeth,” Zapert said. “We have others who the first time you see them, every tooth in their mouth has a cavity.”

The health of a patients teeth and gums can have a direct impact on the rest of their body. Gum disease and oral infections have been linked to premature labor and heart and lung disease. And a severe toothache or other oral problems can affect a childs ability to pay attention in class or take a toll on his or her social life.

Patients who make an appointment usually are seen within about two weeks, Zapert said. But those with acute problems can be seen more quickly.

“Thats really our goal – to get kids out of pain,” Zapert said.

When Zapert began working for the dental program in 1982, it consisted of him, an assistant and two dental chairs at the Health Department on Municipal Way. After the staff took over billing and other administrative duties, the program increased its clients by 61 percent and reduced net budget costs by 74 percent, Zapert said.

In 2000, it won the Davis Productivity Award, which is given to workers who boost productivity while delivering services to the public. The award led Health Department officials to approve a major expansion of the program. It cost about $1.1 million to renovate the building on Railroad Avenue and buy dental equipment. The center opened in March 2005.

Its operating budget is about $1 million annually, but almost all expenses are covered by Medicaid. The county pays for utility bills, janitorial services and building upkeep. The center now has two full-time dentists, Zapert and Dr. Tony Bidwell; two dental hygienists; support staff and 12 dental chairs. There are plans to add a third dentist and other staff members, which would allow the center to take on about 2,000 more patients.

The center also uses students and volunteer dentists. Senior UF dental students like Malik volunteer at the center 40 weeks a year. And Florida State University pre-dental students assist them. Eric Broe, who graduated from FSU in the spring, is volunteering at the center as part of FSUs Pre-Dental Society. Hes applying to dental school for fall 2007.

“It gives us great hands-on experience to evaluate whether or not we want to do this as a career,” he said.

The We Care Network of volunteer doctors hosts a free Dental Clinic Day at the center every other month. Patients must be low-income with no insurance or must have Medicaid. Services are limited to extractions and fillings.