TRAVERSE CITY—Bob Klepac, a retired carpenter, suffered for months with agonizing tooth pain. He visited different dentists who delivered the grim news: he needed dentures at a cost of at least $5,000.
Klepac found a much more affordable answer at the Northwest Michigan Health Services dental clinic on M-72. The dentist plucked out five infected teeth and cleaned up the rest. Klepac’s smile has gaps because Medicaid doesn’t cover cosmetic fixes, but his teeth are his own.
“I see the dentist as an angel,” Klepac said. “But what I found out is how many people don’t know about this place.”
Clinic officials are pushing for higher public awareness to help folks like Klepac. The clinic celebrates its 45th anniversary this year and historically treated migrant farm workers. Now it’s reaching out to the area’s uninsured, working poor, and residents who need lower-cost health care, said Linda Shively, its new executive director.
The clinic met with setbacks last year because of low public awareness combined with a poor harvest that drew fewer migrants. The medical clinics in Traverse City and Bear Lake closed their doors in November, despite hopes they could remain open through winter, said Jim Krupka, board member.
“We didn’t have the funding and the clients to support a year-round operation at this facility,” Krupka said.
The Traverse City dental clinic and a third clinic in Shelby remained open.
Shively said increasing patient volume is key because it will allow the Traverse City clinic to hire a full-time, year-round staff. That will make the clinic eligible to accept a much wider range of insurance plans, which will translate to more patients.
Plans for the Bear Lake Clinic are still up in the air. It may re-open at a new location, where patients also can receive mental health and social services, Krupka said.
“We know we have good facilities, but we also know partnerships are important, too,” Krupka said. “We have tried to look at the whole landscape where we aren’t overwhelmed by pride of ownership.”
The move toward broadening the clinic scope was recommended by Health Resources and Services Administration, which funds the nation’s low-income health clinics and routinely inspects their finances and performance. The agency recommended the clinics reach out to a broader patient base, Krupka said.
“The last couple of years there was a conscious effort to say, ‘Let’s welcome other people,’” Krupka said.
The clinics held back on aggressive marketing because it wanted to make sure it could handle a higher patient load, he said.
Shively brings a new set of credentials to ensure future success. She replaces Judith Williams, who retired last fall, he said.
“She’s experienced in this industry and in this state. She’s very aware of the federal guidelines and medical care in Michigan,” Krukpa said.
Krupka said he’s also encouraged by the changing landscape of health care, which promises greater federal funding for clinics serving the needy.
Shively said the staff, such as dentist Allen Hoeft, is passionate about serving the needy and many are bilingual. The Traverse City dental clinic also serves as a training site for University of Michigan students who work two-week rotations.
Dental students Daniel Fragnoli and Daniel DeNucci, who treated a Ukrainian man on Tuesday, said they’re getting great experience with the clinic’s high volume of patients.
“This is the most beneficial thing we do at school,” Fragnoli said.
The clinics provide services on a sliding scale basis. Klepka, who is on Medicaid, said the dental work cost him almost nothing. His head-wracking pain and soaring blood pressure from the infections are now history.
“It was a blessing,” he said. “They saved my life.”