The North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (NCAFCC) has received $500,000 in funding from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation (Blue Cross NC Foundation) to assist member clinics in enhancing oral health care for low-income, uninsured residents in 18 North Carolina counties.
The grant will support initiatives in the Charlotte region and northwest North Carolina, where clinics offer free healthcare services to over 12,000 residents without any form of health insurance. According to state DHHS data, 44% of North Carolina adults lack access to dental insurance.
Access to dental care in North Carolina poses challenges, even for those who can afford it, as more than 3.7 million residents—over one-third of the state’s population—reside in a federally designated “dental health professional shortage area.” The state trails behind most of the U.S. in dentists per capita, and this shortage impacts all or part of every North Carolina county.
“Good oral health is a key to overall health, and our patients critically need better access to dental care,” said April Cook, CEO of the North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics. “Blue Cross NC Foundation is a vital partner in reducing this serious health risk facing our most vulnerable residents.”
Untreated oral health issues can lead to broader and more costly health complications, lower quality of life and reduced employability, Cook said. Dozens of NCAFCC member clinics statewide are building new brick-and-mortar dental clinics, expanding existing facilities and taking other steps to improve access.
“We commend NCAFCC’s commitment to removing barriers and providing access to oral health care for people across the state,” said John Lumpkin, MD, president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. “We value this opportunity to continue our partnership, and to assist free and charitable clinics in expanding their capacity to deliver even more care to those who need it most.”
In the Charlotte region, the grant will support a new $550,000 mobile dental clinic providing screenings, cleanings, fillings and extractions to free and charitable clinic patients and their families. Five Charlotte-area clinics are expected to begin using the mobile unit in December, but the goal is to expand service to 10 counties in the region.
In northwest North Carolina, Project Smile will benefit clinic patients in eight counties by contracting with local dentists to provide urgent dental services for clinic patients in need and hiring a dental assistant to coordinate patient referrals and support an existing free dental clinic in Hickory. The grant will also fund an expansion of the clinic and support a dental care partnership with Caldwell County.
Without access to a dentist, many uninsured residents with non-traumatic dental conditions (dental pain) turn to hospital emergency departments for treatment, an expensive option that clogs EDs meant for trauma victims. The uninsured account for more than 55% of all ED visits for non-traumatic dental conditions in North Carolina, according to data from the Carequest Institute for Oral Health.
“These severe disparities in access to dental care represent a serious health equity issue for North Carolina,” said Crystal Adams, director of the North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative. “Free and charitable clinics are helping to create more equitable access for our state’s uninsured and underserved residents.”
Learn more about North Carolina’s free and charitable clinics at www.ncafcc.org.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.