News

Oct 31, 2010

South Valley Commons Offers Dental, Medical and Behavioral Services Under One Roof


South Valley Clinic Offers Dental, Medical and Behavioral Services Under One Roof

By Olivier Uyttebrouck
Journal Staff Writer
          Dr. Bill Burns says his South Valley clinic offers a glimpse of dental care in the future.
        The bustling 3-year-old First Choice Community Healthcare dental clinic serves about 1,500 patients a month, of whom only 15 percent have insurance. Most can't afford dental care at a private clinic.
        "We get people from all over," said Burns, who is one of four dentists at the South Valley Family Health Commons. Burns now sees more patients from Albuquerque's Northeast Heights since the economy soured. "As things get tight, we get people who are looking for a cheap way to do it."
        The clinic's dentists and four hygienists perform a wide variety of basic services, ranging from exams and cleanings to root canals, extractions, crowns and dentures.
        Mission of Mercy, a free dental clinic held last month, offered New Mexicans the spectacle of 2,200 people lining up for basic dental services at Expo New Mexico. About 35 people with severe dental problems camped at least two nights to assure a place in line.
        The two-day event raised a question: Where can the uninsured and "working poor" get dental care now that Mission of Mercy is over?
        The problem is compounded in New Mexico by a shortage of dentists.
        New Mexico ranks 49th in the nation in the number of dentists per capita, and about half the state's 887 dentists practice in three urban counties: Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Doña Ana, according to a state report released in August. About 43 percent of New Mexico dentists treated at least one Medicaid patient in 2008.
        Bob DeFelice, CEO of First Choice Community Healthcare, said the South Valley clinic offers a model for providing a full range of health services, including medical, dental and behavioral health to large numbers of low-income people.
        "I think it really is the future not only of dentistry, but primary medical care," DeFelice said.
        The South Valley clinic is an example of a federally qualified health center, receiving federal funds to provide health care for the poor.
        "This is an ideal model for dental health clinics in a smaller city," said Dr. Royce Young, a dentist at the South Valley clinic. "It provides dentistry to a lot of people. That's our emphasis: to serve as many people we can, regardless of their ability to pay."
        Young, 29, graduated from the University of Buffalo School of Dental Medicine in 2008 with $140,000 in school loans. Working for a public clinic provides him with $35,000 a year in loan repayments, in addition to his salary.
        About 41 percent of dental patients at the South Valley clinic are covered by Medicaid. A larger number, 44 percent, pay for dental services on a sliding scale based on income.
        First Choice operates nine such clinics throughout the Albuquerque metro area. Three offer dental services, in Belen, Edgewood and the South Valley clinic.
        A new 22,000-square-foot clinic in Los Lunas, modeled on the South Valley clinic and funded by an $8.1 million federal grant, is scheduled to open by 2012.
        First Choice Community Healthcare has an annual budget of $25 million, of which $5.7 million comes from state and federal sources. Patient services provide most of First Choice's funding, including payments from Medicaid and private insurance plans.
        New Mexico has one of the nation's largest networks of federally qualified health centers, according to the state report. First Choice is one of the state's 15 qualified health center systems that operate 92 clinics statewide; 41 offer dental services.
        First Choice officials say the South Valley facility offers an especially useful model because it houses medical, dental, behavioral health and other services in one place.
        People who come to the clinic for dental services are routinely screened for other problems, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, Burns said. "We routinely hand off people to the medical clinic," he said — a practice called a "warm handoff."
        "The patient doesn't have to deal with another bureaucracy to get medical care," Burns said. "All your basic care is in one building."