When the elderly live in a nursing facility, it’s not easy to get to a dentist. And if an older person had qualified for Medicaid, which funds dental work for the poor, but ages into Medicare, which doesn’t, she can find herself without the ability to pay.
Those factors drove Michelle Vacha, a dental hygienist, to start the nonprofit Community Dental Health in 2006. The organization caters to seniors, veterans and others without the ability to pay for dental care.
“I saw how hard it was for them to come to the dental office,” she says of elderly patients. “It was much easier for me to go to them.”
Which the practice does, if necessary, but also provides services at a clinic at 1436 N. Hancock Ave.
The nonprofit struggled for years, but in 2013 qualified for a state grant that helped pay for adult dental work through Medicaid.
The practice also qualifies for several other grants that help keep costs low for those in need. For example, the clinic charges those without resources only $10 for a tooth extraction that otherwise might run well over $100, she says.
In recent years, the practice began to see a growing clientele composed of veterans. “It was a real eye-opener for me,” Vacha says. “So many of these veterans hadn’t had any dental care since they left the service.” For years, in other words.
Some vets found themselves in Veterans Administration hospitals where their teeth were pulled, but the VA didn’t provide them with dentures, Vacha says.
“For 10 years or longer, these vets were walking around with no teeth until we found them and they found us,” she says.
Some vets had taken matters into their own hands, due to a lack of access to dental care. “They used fishing line to pull their teeth, and needle-nose pliers,” Vacha says. “This is a real hardy generation — take a swig of whiskey and pull a tooth out, because they can’t afford [dental care].”
The practice provides services to 1,600 people annually and has seen a 25 percent increase each year in demand for services. “We provide over $1.5 million worth of care to Colorado Springs and Pueblo low-income populations,” she says.
Those services include making dentures at the practice’s own in-house lab, a life-changing capability, she says.
One client, an elderly woman, reported that her husband required a lot of prescriptions for his health. Since they lived on a fixed income, she had to choose between having her oral health addressed or paying for her husband’s medicine. But Community Dental Health helped her by pulling a few teeth and providing her with partial dentures, all at a low or no cost.
One woman had experienced pain and was given antibiotics. “Her face swelled up and the emergency room couldn’t do anything [to relieve it],” Vacha reports. “Then she called us and we were able to get her taken care of and get her out of pain.”
During the shutdown due to COVID-19, Vacha says she researched how they could reopen safely and invested in ultraviolet light machines that sterilize the air and the work rooms.
Vacha emphasizes that donations are put to work to directly help patients.
“One hundred percent of all donations go directly back into care,” she says.
Like for the veteran who was thankful to finally have dentures after many years of going without.
“He was so moved and excited to smile again,” Vacha says. “He said, ‘Maybe I’ll even get a date.’”