The group's board of directors approved a contract to rent a former dental office at 944 Ky. for $1,000 per month from landlord James Dunn. The former tenant, dentist Larry Mayer, sold his equipment to the coalition at a discount, though officials wouldn't disclose the price.
Health-care experts said the clinic will help fill a vital need for poor people, since Medicaid doesn't offer dental coverage for adults, and few dentists accept the coverage for children.
"There's not a safety net in dentistry," said Virginia Elliott, program officer for the Hutchinson-based United Methodist Health Ministry Fund. "If you're physically sick, you can go to the emergency room. If you have a toothache, there's nowhere to go for emergency care."
The coalition hopes to hire a full-time dentist to operate the clinic. Ed Manda, a dentist who serves as vice president of the coalition's board of directors, said the ideal candidate might be found through the National Health Service Corps, a federal agency that places new health-care providers in high-need areas.
A town in need
A 1999 study conducted by the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund designated Lawrence as a Health Professions Shortage Area, making it eligible for the corps program. The program helps repay the dentists' student loans.
The study found that 35 dentists saw half of the Medicaid patients in Kansas. There are about 1,200 dentists practicing in Kansas.
"Dental services are often seen as discretionary," said Ray Davis, a Kansas University professor who conducted the study.
The clinic also will hire an office assistant, and Lawrence hygienists will volunteer their time. Patient payment will be on a sliding scale, depending on income. Eligibility and prices haven't been determined.
The clinic will operate on grants and other donations. It received a $46,000 grant for a dentist's salary last fall from Lawrence's Rice Foundation and recently received another $12,000 grant from the Kansas Health Foundation.
The Douglas County Dental Coalition was founded in fall 1998 after Health Care Access, a primary care clinic for the uninsured in Douglas County, secured a $25,000 grant from the Kansas Health Foundation. The dental coalition became a nonprofit organization in February 2000.
The group considered several options -- including sharing space with other dentists and using space at Heartland Community Church -- before Mayer's office became available.
A 'social justice issue'
Donita Bouton, a hygienist for dentist John Hay and secretary of the coalition's board of directors, said dental care in Lawrence suffers because of a high number of minimum-wage jobs.
"With minimum-wage jobs, it's hard enough to keep a roof over their heads or food on the table, let alone dentistry," she said.
Physicians from Health Care Access last year referred 250 patients to 16 dentists in Lawrence who volunteer their time for low-income residents. Nikki Rhea, executive director of Health Care Access, said there will be even more demand for the clinic once word gets out.
"It's a huge thing for indigent care in the community to get that off the ground," she said.
The clinic will be one of only a handful of its kind in the area. Others are located in Topeka, Emporia and Kansas City, Mo.
Elliott, of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, called the gap in dental coverage a "social justice issue" that clinics such as the one planned for Lawrence can help solve.
"This is one of those few health issues we know how to address," Elliott said. "We know how to prevent tooth decay. The question is, are we going to allow access to dental care in this country?"
-- Staff writer Terry Rombeck can be reached at 832-7145.