Dental clinic can continue operations

The Southeastern Ohio Dental Clinic, which closed in late June after the exit of the clinic’s only dentist, will be permitted to continue operations with a patchwork staff of dentists-if those dentists can be found.

The clinic has been struggling financially since losing a $59,000 grant at the beginning of the year; however, the clinic had been generating enough revenue to cover its costs thanks to some recent changes, said Washington County Health Commissioner Dick Wittberg at a special Thursday night meeting of the Washington County Health Board.

“We were making it. We were making payroll. During our last audit we were in the black,” Wittberg said.

However, Wittberg and health board administrator Court Witchey have been unsuccessful finding a full time dentist to replace Dr. Dale White, who left the clinic the week of June 17 due to family issues.

“Me and Court have tried every dental school we can think of,” he said.

Two dentists who are interested in the job would not be able to start until September and December, respectively, added.

So the question Tuesday night became “should we try to limp by over the next couple months until we get an answer from a dentist?” asked Wittberg.

Limping by would consist of assembling a patchwork group of “hopefully volunteer” dentists, each able to contribute hours on different days until a full-time paid dentist can be secured.

That dentist would likely be offered the same pay as White-$90,000 annually. In addition, the new dentist could potentially qualify for a grant that would reimburse up to $60,000 of his or her student loans, said Wittberg.

The clinic operates on approximately $300,000 a year.

Besides a dentist, the regular staff consists of a full-time dental hygienist, two full-time dental assistants, and a full-time receptionist, said Wittberg.

A rotating staff of dentists would mean that patients might end up seeing different dentists throughout the course of a single procedure, noted Wittberg.

But Brenda Poynter, an Expanded Functional Dental Auxiliary and Dental Assistant at the clinic, added that she has worked at two dentists offices that worked on a similar model.

“It worked well. Some dentists asked to be scheduled with their same patient the same time next week,” she said.

The clinic, which served around 2,000 patients during 4,700 visits last year, serves a very important function in the community, said Wittberg.

“The community needs that dental clinic so badly it will break my heart to have to close it,” he said.

Board member Jim Rodgers agreed.

“I think we should do every possible thing to keep this going for the community, even if that means hopscotching dentists together,” he said.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to allow the clinic to continue, but only under a long list of conditions.

Witchey and Wittberg will be responsible for putting together a team of dentists by Aug. 1 who can keep the clinic open at least 25 hours a week.

“But I’m going to try for 40,” added Wittberg.

Additionally, Witchey was given the authority to pull the plug on the clinic at any given time if it the situation appears to be taking a negative financial toll.

In the meantime, Witchey and staff were instructed by the board to begin going through the motions of closing the clinic, in anticipation of a worse case scenario. That would include determining outstanding accounts and contacting grant administrators to find out what equipment the clinic does and does not own.

Finally, the clinic will be required to have a full-time dentist in place by Aug. 16. That cutoff would give the clinic time to cease operations before a new month’s worth of bills came due, including $1,000 rent for the building on Third Street in Marietta.

If forced to close, it would not be the first time for the clinic, which opened its doors under the health department’s umbrella in 2006.

The clinic closed from October 2010 to February 2011, said health board president Richard Daniell. That time the closure was due to budgetary concerns.