By Ron Leir
It’s 37 feet long, weighs 12 tons, and takes $250 to fill the tank.
That is the North Hudson Community Action Corp. mobile dental van, which made its West Hudson debut last Wednesday, Sept. 11, at the Kearny Health Department to service general dental needs of uninsured/Medicaid/ Medicare area residents who would, otherwise, visit already stressed hospital ERs.
Kearny became only the second community in NHCAC’s service area – the first was Englewood – to host the RV-lookalike. Of the eight people who called ahead for appointments last week, six showed up: five from Kearny and one from Harrison.
NHCAC acquired the “dental clinic on wheels” with the aid of a $325,000 federal American Recovery & Reinvestment Act grant, supplemented by an estimated $125,000 for dental equipment, according to Vincent Urgola, the agency’s operations manager.
The generator-equipped vehicle, manufactured by Farber Specialties of Ohio, is outfitted with two separate temperature- controlled spaces resembling typical dental offices, where patients are welcomed by Dr. Mercedes Rabeiro- Wert, the dentist assigned to the unit, and certified dental assistant Monica Martinez.
Physically challenged clients can access the van via an electronically activated wheelchair lift built into the vehicle.
Patients are charged on a sliding scale fee, from $45 to full pay, based on household income for a variety of basic dental services including general checkup, x-rays, fillings, cleanings, extractions, sealants and fluoride treatments, explained Dr. Janet Lavandeira, NHCAC director of dental services. For more involved work, such as dentures or orthodontics, patients are referred to specialists, she said.
To comply with state Department of Health regulations, NHCAC instructed the vehicle vendor not to install an instrument sterilization unit in the vehicle, according to Urgola. Instead, the instruments are cleaned at the agency’s West New York clinic site, he said.
For the safety of the van’s staff and patients, Urgola said, “we do unannounced fire and emergency preparedness drills with the vehicle. And this van is convertible for use in emergencies in conjunction with emergency management services in Hudson, Bergen and Passaic counties.”
Patients who arrive early for their Kearny appointments can wait in the Kearny Health Dept. building, 645 Kearny Ave., and are then called into the van when the dentist is ready for them.
Before they see the dentist, patients are interviewed by a registration clerk who reviews their eligibility documents they are required to bring: photo ID, proof of income form (tax return, pay stub unemployment or disability record) and proof of address (utility, phone or cable bill), and then records their medical history.
If, for some reason, a patient is unable to provide the required documentation, staff will still provide the basic treatment, Urgola said. “We never turn anyone away.” And the cost is absorbed by the agency which receives reimbursement from the federal government.
The mobile van’s next visit is slated for Sept. 25, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., in front of the Kearny Health Dept. and all eight appointment slots have already been booked, according to Kearny Health Officer John Sarnas.
In Englewood, the NHCAC dental staff have been seeing an average of 12 patients a day, records show.
Starting next month, the mobile van’s Kearny visits are expected on a weekly basis. To schedule appointments or for more information, prospective patients are invited to call 201-210-0200. Kearny residents who need transportation to the site can call the Health Dept. at 201-997-0600 to request Dial A Ride service.
As a possible backup plan, Urgola said that West Hudson or South Bergen residents could consider checking out the NHCAC dental clinic at 110 Main Ave. in Passaic.
Mayor Alberto Santos said that the town has never done a survey to determine how many limited-income residents could use dental services. “But I’m confident the need is there,” he added, “and it has to be addressed.”
Shortly after he was elected to his first term as mayor in 2000, Santos said, he had an experience he’s never likely to forget. “A family [income-challenged] came into my office – it was a woman in her 30s and her mother – and the younger woman was a deaf mute who was in horrific pain because of her teeth. That story always stuck with me. We were able to refer her to a dental clinic in North Hudson for help.”
Santos said that Kearny isn’t charged for the mobile van service but the town does pay an annual membership fee to NHCAC which also provides WIC (Women & Infant Children) service to residents.