Healthy smiles: South Lake Tahoe program helps uninsured children get dental care
April 2, 2018
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — For the last eight years, Young Tahoe Smiles has provided South Shore children in-need with dental care.
But the roots of the program go back much further. In 1999 when Dr. Mireya Ortega moved to South Lake Tahoe and opened High Sierra Dental, uninsured parents began showing up to her practice with their children.
"The children would have swollen faces and septic teeth, and they were looking for help," said Ortega. "Sometimes I was the first dentist, but often times I was the fourth or fifth that they had gone to. They didn't have insurance or money."
Ortega began taking on one child at a time pro bono, removing their cavities and getting them back to a healthy state before moving on to the next patient.
She did this for the next decade, until 2010 when "angel donors" approached her about supporting the program. Soon after, Young Tahoe Smiles was born.
With the donors, along with local nonprofit Tahoe Magic, helping to cover the cost of supplies, Ortega was able to take on the care of more children. She began a qualifying process that requires parents provide proof of financial need and commit to consistently bringing in their children for checkups and cleanings.
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"As long as they keep coming every six months, they can stay in this program," said Ortega. "The parents when we qualify them based on financial need are advised what their contribution is going to be — either $5, $10 or $20 a visit."
Many of the families in Young Tahoe Smiles don't receive dental benefits through the two to three jobs they work and can't afford to pay for it themselves.
A promising program
Today Ortega sees around 60 children through the program every year. Some of her patients have been with the program since its inception.
"It certainly shows a lot of promise because the kids have good home care, their parents are pretty diligent in bringing them in for their appointments, and we aren't seeing a lot of recurrent decay," said Ortega.
For 2016, the percentage of patients with recurrent decay was less than 4 percent, said Ortega.
"During the appointments I have them watch some educational videos on brushing and flossing and the consequences of cavities."
In 2012, researchers from Ostrow School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California released a study linking bad oral hygiene with poor performance in school. The study looked at 1,500 socioeconomically disadvantaged elementary and high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The researchers found that children who reported recent tooth pain were four times more likely to have a lower grade point average compared to their peers. Poor oral health also was linked to a higher percentage of absences.
After hearing about this study, Young Tahoe Smiles began collecting grades from its participants in hopes of analyzing the program's impact on South Shore students. The results are not ready to be released yet.
"It's been difficult and it wont be an easy task because the school systems have very different grades," said Ortega. "My main concern is if they started the program with cavities and not doing well in school can we show, regardless of what grade process the schools use, that their grades have improved in the period of time."
Ortega said there is still room for growth — and new patients — in the Young Tahoe Smiles, which is funded fully by Ortega and local donors without government subsidies.
"The program is open to all people," said Ortega. "All they have to do it apply."
Claire Cudahy is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister paper of The Union based in South Lake Tahoe.