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Some may see budget that has no teeth

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By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001


Consider this:

If you are a death row inmate in a Florida prison, the state will pay for all the dental fillings and root canal work you need.

But if your crime is poverty, you have no such right. And if Gov. Jeb Bush has his way, a University of Florida program that provides low-cost dental care to the working poor in communities around the state -- including a St. Petersburg clinic -- will lose state funding.

Bush has proposed cutting the $600,000 state subsidy from the program, which uses UF dental students and local dentists who volunteer, to fix the teeth of people who typically earn enough to pay the rent, but have precious little left over at the end of the month. These are folks caught in the middle -- they make too much to qualify for some programs, but not enough to pay for a private dentist.

"This is a basic health issue," said Thomas Porter, a UF professor who runs the St. Petersburg clinic. "You can't pretend the problem isn't there."

To be fair, Bush has little choice about the inmates. The matter was hashed out in the courts, with the result being the state providing for prisoners' dental and medical care. But who is looking out for the people who do not have dental insurance and for whom a dental bill of several hundred dollars is impossible to handle? We're talking about the employees of your favorite restaurant who make sure your mahi mahi is grilled to perfection; the people who sell you a gallon of milk at a convenience store.

The St. Petersburg clinic opened a decade ago, after the land for it was donated by First Florida Bank in honor of the late Hubert Rutland Sr., a St. Petersburg banker and businessman. Last year, the clinic, at 960 Seventh Ave. N, saw 7,000 patients, 2,000 of whom came in on an emergency basis, said Porter. The clinic opens at 7:30 a.m. to take the line of people whose jaws hurt so badly they need immediate care.

The UF people are lobbying like mad, trying to get state legislators to put the money back into the budget for the coming year. The issue will take shape in the coming weeks as legislators work out a final budget. The UF dental school dean has been walking from office to office in Tallahassee, trying to win allies.

"They call it a turkey for the University of Florida without the understanding that this is hitting Pensacola, Immokalee and St. Petersburg," said Frank Catalanotto, UF Dental School dean.

Turkey. Say that to yourself as you look at the people in the St. Petersburg clinic waiting room. Some of them are old; many are people of color and different ethnicities. You see bent backs, calloused hands and payments for $40 fillings in cash, singles.

The UF dental program has a friend in House Majority Leader Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. He proposes saving the current funding and supports an increase that would allow UF to take on new partnerships, including one in Pasco County.

"I know how important that program is to many of our seniors throughout the state," he said. "It reaches out to people who truly need help."

Another partnership being contemplated is one with All Children's Hospital, which would provide basic dental care for poor children and children who have special dental needs because of other health conditions, such as complications from chemotherapy, said Bill Horton, an All Children's vice president.

Similar partnerships are planned with St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and Hillsborough Community College.

Horton said he is concerned about the prognosis for continued funding of what he considers a strong program that fills a definite need in the Tampa Bay area and around the state.

Meanwhile, the UF dental school dean is planning to visit legislators again, hoping to appeal to their collective conscience.

Before long, we'll find out if they have one.

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