Dentists smile on the needy

A group of professionals have started a program to give low-income adults inexpensive dental care.

By JOSE CARDENAS, Times Staff Writer
Published November 28, 2007

Dental care usually isn't cheap, but a new network of a dozen or so local dentists wants to give poor adults quality dental care for just a few dollars.

They aim to provide affordable care in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties through a new nonprofit program called Gulf Coast Dental Outreach.

The dentists say it's a unique dental care program for the poor in North Pinellas. They launched it this monthat one of their offices in Dunedin.

They saw about 10 patients.

"We saw people who have never been to the dentist," said Dr. Larry Lieberman, 51, one of three co-founders, whose dental practice is in Palm Harbor.

"One guy had severe infections," said Lieberman. "We had people who had dental work in the past and just could not afford it now. A girl was 26, and she had never had her teeth cleaned before."

The idea is the brainchild of Dr. Robert Ettleman, who lives in Tampa, but whose practice was in Dunedin for two decades. The third co-founder is Dr. Harvey Kerstein, whose practice is in Clearwater.

Ettleman, 54, left his practice four years ago after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

"I kind of went into early retirement," said Ettleman, who will administer Gulf Coast Dental Outreach. "This is a way I felt I could give back to the community."

The program focuses on poor adults, Ettleman said, because poor children have Medicaid and other programs that help pay for dental care.

But the government help available for adults sometimes requires that adults with bad teeth get dentures, Lieberman said, and some prefer to save their teeth.

The dentists say there are 250,000 people in Pinellas County who the Health Department considers to be low income.

Meeting a need

"I knew there was a need in the county that was being unmet," said Ettleman. "There are no benefits for adults. We realized there was a safety net that was very weak."

To qualify for Gulf Coast Dental Outreach, adults will have to be at or near the poverty level. They will pay $15 for most procedures.

So far, the dentists are providing basic dental care, Ettleman said. But the plan is to also form a network of specialists to provide advanced services such as root canals.

The program's headquarters is at the Dunedin office of a dentist who rents the program space cheaply on Fridays. The program's founders don't publicize his address because they don't want him to get swamped during his normal practice.

Instead, the dentists want patients to be referred to them by public assistance organizations. The county's Department of Health and organizations such as Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services and La Clinica Guadalupana and clergy will know how to make referrals to Gulf Coast Dental Outreach, Ettleman said. Already, he added, the program has referrals through February.

The dentists will volunteer their time, Lieberman said. People in the dental care community, such as laboratory workers, suppliers and dental assistants, are interested in helping. The Central Florida Institute in Palm Harbor is sending dental students to volunteer.

But the program will still need donations to cover other costs, including paying for the services of hygienists and dental assistants, the doctors said.

For now, Ettleman estimates it will cost maybe $50,000 a year to operate the program.

The dentists want to get out word of their pro bono work, Lieberman said, partly because a recent New York Times article made dentists look like callous profiteers.

The article said that while 100-million people don't have dental insurance, dentists around the country are making record money. It pointed to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics that reveal that untreated cavities for Americans began rising this decade, reversing a half-century trend of improving dental health.

"There are many dentists who do give back," said Lieberman, who lives in Oldsmar. "A lot of dentists are very kind, very compassionate and really want to help people, especially this time of year."

Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4224.

Fast facts

Gulf Coast Dental Outreach

To make an appointment: Various local public-assistance organizations will know how to refer patients. But one primary resource is the county's Health Department, which can be reached at these numbers:

St. Petersburg: (727) 824-6900, ext. 11034.

Tarpon Springs: (727) 942-5457, ext. 111.

Clearwater: (727) 469-5800, ext. 120.

Largo: (727) 588-4040, ext. 129.

Pinellas Park: (727) 547-7780, ext. 104.

To donate: Call (813) 389-3748.