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Getting teeth fixed, and back on the job

Donald Powell wanted a job, but he dreaded going for an interview.

Powell hadn’t gone to the dentist to get his teeth cleaned in nine years. The only time he visited the dentist was to get a tooth “cut out.” His front teeth were missing.

“When you work in customer service, who wants to smile without a tooth in your head, you know what I mean?” said Powell, 37, who lives in Wolf Pen.

Powell’s state caseworker, Debbie Cottrill, encouraged Powell to sign up for a West Virginia program that pays for dental work for low-income people looking for jobs.

Powell found a dentist. He got his teeth cleaned. Six cavities were filled. A front tooth was repaired. He was fitted with an upper and lower partial denture.

“I didn’t have front teeth. He replaced the bad ones,” Powell said. “He did good work.”

And Powell got a job. He drives a delivery truck for North Central Distributors in Dunbar.

About 2,000 West Virginians receive free dental and optical care through the Pre-employment Services Project. The state Department of Health and Human Resources’ Bureau of Children and Families oversees the program.

People receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are eligible. It’s one of the few programs in West Virginia that provides free dental care to low-income residents.

The program pays for fillings, cleanings, exams, root canals and dentures. Participants can receive up to $2,400 of dental work. They qualify for up to a year of services.

“It improves their outlook in life and helps them present themselves better when they go on a job interview,” said Ken Selbe, the program’s coordinator. “The idea was to help them become self-sufficient, to get them from welfare to work.”

A DHHR case worker must approve a person’s request for services. Participants choose their own dentist from a list provided by the state. About 275 dentists take part each year in the $1.8 million program.

The most common procedures are extractions, fillings and root canals.

Dentists like the program, too, said Dr. Greg Black, West Virginia’s part-time dental director. They don’t need their work pre-authorized by the state. They also get reimbursed at a fair rate, Black said.

The pre-employment program was briefly suspended in 2004, but an outcry from social workers brought it back.

“It was something tangible they could offer clients,” Selbe said. “They could see the benefits.”

Selbe and Black hope the program also will improve people’s oral health even after they’ve exhausted the $2,400. People learn to trust a dentist. They may set up teeth cleanings every six months.

“They’ll come back if they’ve had a good experience,” Selbe said.

Powell said he has changed his oral hygiene habits. He now brushes his teeth three times a day. He used to brush only once a day.

Powell’s fiancée, Cassie Phillips, also has taken part in the pre-employment program. She’s looking for a job as a hair stylist. The program paid for a root canal and several fillings.

Cottrill serves as caseworker for the couple. She ran into Powell last month outside her office in North Charleston.

“Cassie said you smile all the time now,” Cottrill told Powell.

“I do,” he said.

State of Decay: The series

Monday

Part 2: Dentures in a day

The demand for dentures is growing

in West Virginia.

Next Sunday

Part 3: Nothing to smile about

Across the state, children are missing school, eating poorly and not sleeping well because of untreated tooth decay.

Next Monday

Part 4: The fight for fluoride

Dentists and health officials recommend fluoride in the battle to improve dental health. About one in four West Virginians rely on well water, which normally isn’t fluoridated.

How we did the series

Sunday Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre spent six months researching oral health in West Virginia as part of a Kaiser Media Fellowship in Health.

Eyre visited dental clinics throughout the state and interviewed dentists, hygienists, dental assistants, doctors, researchers, dental school students, state health officials, nonprofit group leaders and patients with oral health problems.

Much of the dental data was culled from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Eyre, a Gazette-Mail reporter since 1998, now covers health for the newspaper.

To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-4869.


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