The dental clinic at the Robeson County Health Department closes its doors on Monday because it is not self-supporting financially. | Bob Shiles | The Robesonian
July 14, 2013
LUMBERTON — The dental clinic at the Robeson County Department of Health will close Monday, leaving a score of low income county residents with no place to receive dental care.
Bill Smith, the county’s heath director, said that the closing of Robeson Family Dentistry Plus is because the facility can no longer operate without being financially self-supporting.
“We just had too many, about 60 percent, of patients without any source for payment,” Smith said.
According to the director, about 24 percent of the clinic’s patients were covered by Medicaid, 8 percent did have some kind of insurance, and 8 percent paid out of their pocket.
Smith puts much of the blame on the closing on the shoulders of state legislators, who earlier this year voted down the option of expanding Medicaid.
“We had hoped there would be Medicaid expansion,” he said. “If there had been Medicaid expansion a vast amount of the people we have been serving would have been covered.”
According to Smith, keeping the clinic open would have cost about $200,000 this year.
“We lost the ability of using $400,000 we have been able to move around in the past because it had to be designated for other programs, such as maternity, family planning and child health,” Smith said.
Smith said letters announcing the closing were sent to more than 1,000 patients who had used the facility’s services over the past year.
Several patients who stopped by the clinic last week to pick up their records expressed concerns about the void in dental care.
Barbara Graham, who works in home health care, said that she has no dental insurance and will now have to travel out of the county to receive dental services.
“This is going to have a big impact on me,” said Graham, a Lumberton resident. “Now I’m going to have to drive almost to Sanford, about an hour and a half away, to get dental care.”
The closing is going to have a major effect on the local Hispanic population, according to 16-year-old Pedro Garcia, who along with his 12-year-old sister and 6-year-old brother have been patients at the clinic.
“It was convenient here,” Garcia said. “Now we will have to go to a dentist in either Lumberton or St. Pauls.”
For Victoria Locklear, of Prospect, the closing is like losing an old friend. She has been a patient at the clinic since 2000.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now. I’ve been coming here since I was about 8 years old,” said Locklear, whose parents have both worked for the Health Department.
According to Smith, the clinic’s closing affects five employees — Dr. Mary Cummings, the clinic’s dentist; a dental hygienist; and three dental assistants. Smith believes there are local job opportunities for the employees to find work.
Cummings, who previously had a private practice in Pembroke and more recently worked for Robeson Health Care, does not intend to go back into private practice.
“This is a wonderful clinic. I enjoyed working here,” Cummings said. “It was very satisfying … . I would have taken a cut in pay if it would have meant the clinic would not have to close.
“I am very sorry that this segment of the population is now not going to be served.”
Cummings believes there are enough dentists in the area to serve Medicaid patients, but those patients with no insurance or other way to pay for services are going to find it difficult to get the dental care they need.
Cummings said there could have been more “productivity” at the clinic if there had been an additional employee hired by the county to serve at the front desk.
“You can’t run a successful dental clinic without an experienced person at the desk,” she said.
Smith said, however, that even with an additional staff member to work the front desk there was not the degree of productivity needed to generate the revenue to make the facility self-supporting.
County Commissioner Tom Taylor, the chairman of the county’s Board of Health, said that there was no choice but to close the clinic since it cannot be self-supporting, a requirement of the facility when it was first opened.
“The clinic has to be self-supporting,” Taylor said. “County taxpayers can’t be required to support it.”
Both Smith and Taylor said that when East Carolina University’s School of Dentistry’s outreach center is built and opens in Lumberton, dental services will once again be available for the poor.
“Hopefully the center will be open sometime within the next year and a half,” Smith said.
The clinic will be located on 2.5 acres of land located in front of the Pinecrest Country Club, near the county Department of Social Services on N.C. 711 and adjacent to the Pinecrest Village subdivision. The clinic will serve as a Community Learning Center for the university, offering fourth-year dental students and post-graduate residents a place to learn and sharpen their skills. The clinic will also provide free and reduced-cost care for qualifying local residents.