Jon Derry’s teeth were in bad shape when he arrived at Ellis Dental Care.
He’d always had “really weak, soft teeth,” and a car accident made things worse, causing long-lasting damage to his mouth.
Ellis gave Derry what he called “a mouthover,” replacing his front teeth, putting on new crowns and pulling bad molars.
The work, which took place over the course of many months, changed Derry’s life.
“It gave me my confidence back,” the 58-year-old Delanson resident told me. “I can smile in photos. I can smile and feel good about myself.”
Derry is one of many low-income Schenectady County residents who has received much-needed dental care from the Ellis clinic, which was founded in 1975 and is one of only two Medicaid dental providers in the entire county.
Now the clinic is slated for closure as Ellis and Albany-based St. Peter’s Health Partners prepare to merge, which worries Derry.
“That’s where I go to get my cleanings,” he said. “I can’t believe they’re going to close it.”
There is a plan for Ellis’ dental patients – they will be directed to a new, expanded clinic operated by Hometown Health in Schenectady.
But some fear the community is losing a valuable resource, and that expecting Hometown Health to absorb the thousands of dental patients served by Ellis is unrealistic.
“The need is so great,” said Barry Loffredo, a Schenectady dentist who has volunteered at the Ellis clinic since its inception and is a member of an eight-person task force, composed of local dentists, who oppose closing the clinic.
There’s no question that Ellis Dental Care has helped a lot of people over the years, or that its closure, scheduled for the end of June, will leave a void in the community.
Most of the people I spoke to for this piece expressed serious concerns about the impact of shutting down the clinic, chief among them whether Hometown Health will be able to absorb the thousands of patients currently served by Ellis.
Right now, Ellis serves as a safety net for people of little means, providing extensive work to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. It also trains dentists, many of whom go on to work in the community, through its residency program, which will also be terminated.
“It’s going to be a significant change for the community,” said Michelle Ostrelich, the Schenectady County legislator who chairs the county’s health and human service committee. “There are risks that we need to be aware of.”
In a December letter, Loffredo and the other dentists on the task force warned that terminating Ellis Dental Care “threatens to overrun local emergency rooms with dental emergencies that cannot effectively be managed without the direct involvement of a dentist.”
Ellis and Hometown Health say this is not going to happen.
Their plan, which awaits approval from the state Department of Health, calls for Hometown Health to build a new dental clinic in Schenectady with a bigger staff.
They stressed that the transition to this new clinic will be seamless, with Hometown Health leasing the Ellis Dental Care space at the McClellan Street campus and serving patients there. When the new facility is complete, the McClellan Street site will be vacated, and all dental operations moved into the new space.
“Hometown Health and Ellis are working together to meet the needs of the community,” Paul Milton, Ellis Medicine CEO, told me. “Ultimately, the community is going to benefit.”
Critics like Loffredo aren’t so sure.
Implementation is everything, and the dentists I spoke with are especially worried about staffing at the new clinic, and whether it would be enough to meet demand. Joe Gambino, CEO of Hometown Health, said he hopes to hire the Ellis staff, but the dentists on the task force are skeptical.
“If they can accomplish (what they say they’re going to do), it will be great,” said dentist Don DeLuke, whose father founded Ellis Dental Care. “I don’t think they will.”
The plan outlined by Ellis and Hometown Health is better than I expected.
But will it be good enough?
That remains to be seen.
Gambino is well aware of the dearth of dental care providers for low-income Schenectady County residents, which makes me cautiously optimistic.
“When you’re talking about the underserved, dental care is really a crisis,” Gambino told me. “Ellis and Hometown Health are the only two options these patients have available. If you’re looking at 50 percent of that accessibility going away, what’s going to happen? So many dental offices don’t accept Medicaid dental patients. Where are they going to go? They’re going to go to Hometown Health.”
Hometown Health’s dental clinic has about two dozen staff, and last year recorded over 17,000 patient visits, roughly 10,000 more than Ellis Dental Care. Its current facility is at capacity, which is why a bigger one is needed. A search for a new site is underway; Gambino said he has a few options he’s looking at.
Ellis patients like Jon Derry might very well find what they need at Hometown Health’s expanded clinic.
But there are always downsides to reducing the medical services available in a community of great challenges and needs.
Ellis Dental Care does good work, and I suspect people will miss it when it’s gone.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.