Iowa Free Clinic Helps The Uninsured by Brightening Smiles, Improving Health Care

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More than 1,000 patients a year receive free dental care through the Community Free Health Clinic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – The patient who walked down the clinic hallway smiled broadly and announced to all who passed: “I’m smiling! I’m smiling!”

Darlene Schmidt, CEO of the Community Health Free Clinic was momentarily perplexed; then she caught on: the patient had just undergone reconstructive dental work. The embarrassment of bad teeth was gone. This was a smile of pride, worth boasting about.

“That smile makes such a difference,” she said. “In employment, in social situations, having a healthy smile is so important.”

Each year, more than 1,000 patients who have no coverage for dental health care receive teeth cleanings, X-rays, extractions, fillings and other critical dental procedures in the dental clinic of the Community Health Free Clinic in the heart of Cedar Rapids.

Jeanette Holtz is one of many parishioners from St. Pius X Catholic

The free clinic began operations in the 1990s, and the dental clinic opened in 2004. Throughout the clinic’s history, St Pius X Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids has been an important community partner.

The Jessie Ball duPont Fund has worked in partnership with St. Pius to support the clinic since 2000, investing more than $500,000. Earlier this year, the Fund made a $90,000 grant to St. Pius to partner with the clinic and expand dental services.

Dental health is an often overlooked but critical component of overall health. Untreated oral health conditions have been linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart and lung disease and stroke, according to the National Institutes of Health. In addition, visibly poor oral health can impact an individuals’ self-esteem, social interactions and ability to get employment.

The reasons for poor oral health often are related to costs and health care coverage. Fewer than 50% of all U.S. adults, ages 19-64, have private dental coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. For every one adult who is uninsured, there are three others who do not have dental insurance.

While Medicaid offers some dental coverage, a wide range of adults are not eligible for Medicaid, either because of income or criteria.

“We are seeing more and more patients who are working poor,” said Dr. Mark Marz, dental director for the clinic. “Often they are people who have jobs but no coverage, or they are middle-aged, have had jobs and provided for their families, and suddenly they are unemployed and trying to make it but they just need a little help.”

The clinic accepts no government funding or reimbursements. All services are provided free of charge. The clinic’s annual budget of about $1.3 million comes exclusively from contributions. In the 12 months ended in June 2013, the dental division had 1,430 patient visits and provided $461,000 of services.

For St. Pius, the Community Health Free Clinic provides an excellent avenue for outreach. The parish has made regular financial contributions to the clinic and many parishioners volunteer regularly at the clinic, said Sister Joellen Price, pastoral associate at the parish.

Both Darlene Schmidt (left), CEO of the Community Health Free Clinic, and Jean Bjorseth, director of community relations, stress the importance of dental health to an individual’s overall health.

In a fortuitous turn of events, one of the clinic’s supporters is PGA golfer Zach Johnson, who won the Masters Tournament in 2007. Johnson is a native of Cedar Rapids and Clinic CEO Schmidt has known his family since before Zach was born. Today, Johnson and his wife contribute funds to the clinic each time he hits a birdie or an eagle on a tour event, and those funds are matched by two different donors.

Marz, like all of the dentists who work at the clinic, is a volunteer. In addition to dentists who come to the clinic to see patients, there are dentists and oral surgeons in the community who will see clinic patients in their offices.

“If a patient needs special treatment or surgery, we have physicians who will provide those services in their offices using their equipment,” Marz said.

Marz often shares his experiences at the clinic and ends up recruiting other health care providers to help out.

“I tell them all that what I take out of here is so much more than what I give,”