School-based dental clinics bring smiles to hundreds of kids in southeast Minnesota

Dental hygienist Holly Jorgensen remembers calls to her dental office in Owatonna a decade ago. Repeatedly, worried voices on the other end of the line asked, “Does your practice accept medical assistance for dental services?”

And again and again, the answer was no.

In 2012, Minnesota’s medical assistance reimbursement rates for dentists dropped to levels lower than most other states, according to a legislative audit. This change has forced many dentists to limit or even stop treating low-income people – people who already tend to be at high risk of developing dental disease due to lack of health care, transportation or transportation. language barriers.

Jorgensen understood the difficult choice facing dentists: “continue to treat low-income patients or cover overhead and operating costs.” But at night, a worried Jorgensen would ask her husband, Curt, “Who’s going to take care of these kids?”

On one particularly tearful evening, Curt looked at her and said, “Go do something about it.”

She did it.

Jorgensen, 51 and a mother of three young adults, quit her job and founded Let’s Smile, a nonprofit provider of free dental services for state-insured children and teens in southeastern Minnesota. Services include basic screenings, plaque removal to prevent cavities and infections, and fluoride varnish treatments to strengthen enamel, for children 6 months to 19 years old.

“I don’t want families to have to choose between buying food, paying the heating bill or getting preventive dental care for their children,” she said.

Meet the children where they are

Because many parents don’t have the luxury of taking half a day off to get their kids treated, Let’s Smile (letssmileinc.com) goes to the kids. Twice a year, Jorgensen, two other dental hygienists and a patient coordinator visit 26 schools in southeastern Minnesota, removing children from class for about 20 minutes and delighting them after their exam with take-out bags containing a new toothbrush, toothpaste and floss.

She also tapped into her skills as a community theater performer, planning “peer rallies” for oral health and sending the “Smile Fairy” into classrooms.

After each visit, Jorgensen and his team send the children home with a report on the services provided. If a follow-up appointment with a dentist is warranted, she says, “We explain this to the parents so they know what to do next.”

She is quick to point out that she is not a dentist. “I don’t diagnose cavities,” Jorgensen said. “We assess. If we assess and see, for example, true enamel breakdown which may indicate a cavity, we always refer to a dental office for diagnosis.”

The Let’s Smile team also sees children and teens at Owatonna’s Community Pathways, a vibrant community center offering food, clothing and other support services. Their clinic will quadruple in size at the Pathways site this summer, adding separate dental hygiene and dental therapy rooms, a sterilization room — “and my home office,” said Jorgensen, who currently works in the his college-aged daughter.

“It’s going to be fantastic!”

The expanded clinic comes at a critical time. Two years into COVID-19, Jorgensen and his team are seeing the fallout of dental offices closing and teens at home “munching all day and not brushing their teeth. We have seen a lot of infections,” she said.

“We’re trying to catch up and get those kids back healthy.”

The word comes out. Families in Mankato and surrounding communities are reaching out to schedule dental appointments due to the lack of dental offices accepting state health care plans in their areas.

“I love what I do,” said Jorgensen, a dental hygienist of 28 years. She particularly likes it when a certain type of patient jumps into her hygienist chair.

“When the kids are on schedule,” she says, “I know I’m going to have a good day.”

Larry A. Schroeder