More than Just Dental Care – Giving Low-Income Residents A Chance

A patient awaits treatment at the Northern Virginia Dental Clinic.

If your front teeth are decayed to the gum line, and you walk into a restaurant – or any employer’s office – to ask for a job, how likely are they to hire you? The social challenges, let alone the risk of life-threatening infection from tooth decay… without access to affordable dental care, people are really struggling.
—Tom Wilson, Executive Director, Northern Virginia Dental Clinic

In Virginia, Medicaid only covers emergency services, such as surgery for an abscessed or broken tooth. This means that even though their incomes are low enough to qualify them for public assistance, many low-income individuals in Northern Virginia are left with few options when they need fillings, root canals, preventative treatments, or other services that are critical to good oral health.

Fortunately, for the last 20 years, the Northern Virginia Dental Clinic (NVDC) has been a lifeline to low-income residents who need these treatments and other oral health care. NVDC is the only clinic of its kind in the Commonwealth that sees adults with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Referred by social service agencies and safety-net clinics across Northern Virginia, patients each pay a flat fee of $40 for up to one hour of treatment.

Along with some paid staff, volunteer dentists and dental hygienists provide comprehensive care at the clinic, from the initial exam, x-rays, and cleanings, to fillings, root canals, extractions, oral surgery, periodontal work, and prosthetic appliances, such as dentures. However, the most important thing they do, according to Mr. Wilson, is patient education.

“Most of our patients know very little about basic dental care. This is usually because they were never taught. Or if they were, they haven’t maintained good oral health or can’t afford to see a dentist for regular cleanings or other treatment,” said Mr. Wilson. “We do everything we can to help restore their dental health and help them maintain it,” he added.

Over the last decade, the dental needs of individual patients haven’t changed but the overall demand for care has really grown, according to Mr. Wilson. “This is partly due to the fact that the population is growing, but it’s also due to growing income disparities. Poor residents are getting poorer, making it even less likely that they can afford dental care,” he said.

“Our patients tell us that getting this care has changed their lives,” said Mr. Wilson. “We saw a 28-year-old woman who had 13 teeth pulled in one day. When we first started seeing her, she was quiet and talked with her hand in front of her face. After her treatments were completed, she was joking and laughing. With dentures, she isn’t ashamed to smile now. A transformation took place,” he said.