"A pebble in the ocean.."

March 21, 2012

Marianne Benson is the mother of a 41-year-old son with a developmental disability. She knows about the difficulties of providing dental care to this underserved population, many of whom have never received dental care. Often, they are fearful, require sedation, or do not understand what's happening to them when they are in a dentist's office. Many have lost their teeth because of a lack of care and health coverage.

Marianne Benson is the mother of a 41-year-old son with a developmental disability. She knows about the difficulties of providing dental care to this underserved population, many of whom have never received dental care. Often, they are fearful, require sedation, or do not understand what's happening to them when they are in a dentist's office. Many have lost their teeth because of a lack of care and health coverage.

"A lot of them have no teeth because when the state provided coverage they'd pull them and not provide them with dentures or bridges," Benson said.

Three years ago, when the state of California, where Benson lives, slashed the Medicaid benefits that had provided some dental care to the developmentally disabled, Benson decided to take action. She co-founded Desert Friends of the Developmentally Disabled; a free clinic that provides dental care services to developmentally disabled children and adults.

"We realized that this population has been thrown under the bus, ignored and discriminated against," Benson said, adding that even when there was Medicaid coverage only about seven percent of those eligible received services.

For the first few years, a dentist let the group based in Rancho Mirage, Calif., use his office on Saturday to treat patients. Dentists, periodontists, hygienists and others volunteered their services. 

When the dentist decided it was no longer practical to let the group see patients in his office the desert friends decided they needed their own space. They launched a one-year quest to find a space, a search that was hampered by peoples' misunderstanding of and prejudices against people with developmental disabilities.

"As soon as people (prospective landlords) found out about the population that we'd be bringing in they said, 'No,'" Benson recalled.

Their persistence paid off, however, and the dream to be able to provide the developmentally disabled with dental care in their own facility is now a reality. The group expects to opened its first dental clinic in mid-August. It is located in a shopping center in Palm Springs. The group has renovated a 1,200 square foot office space where people –many of whom are on a waiting list --will be treated.

"We already have a waiting list of nearly 100 people from throughout Riverside and San Beradino counties who are in desperate need of dental care," Benson said

One of her chief supporters and co-founder is Dr. Melvin Glick, a retired dentist who volunteers his time. He said he works to help the developmentally disabled because the need among this underserved population is so great.

"These people have greater dental needs because so many of them haven't gotten treatment," he said.

It is estimated that California has 240,000 disabled children and adults, 24,000 of whom reside in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. About 1,500 of them live in the Coachella Valley. State statistics indicate that 88 percent of disabled children and adults have unmet dental needs.

The clinic will open with two chairs and expects to add two chairs in the coming months. When the clinic expands to four chairs "we can start doing a lot of dentistry," Glick said. He estimates that the group would be able to treat 12 to 15 people a day with four chairs.

Benson said developmentally disabled population have needs that require longer appointments than usual. An appointment that might usually require a half-hour to 45 minutes may require 90 minutes.

“A lot of them have to be put under because they can’t sit still in the dentist’s chair,” she said.

The organization is seeking the volunteer help of other dental professionals and said they have many needs.

 "Right now we're in need of everything. Most of what we've done has been out of our own pockets or with small grants,” Glick said.

Students from Western University School of Dentistry will volunteer, which Glick said will be a win-win for the clinic and students.

“It’s a training program for the students,” he said. “Maybe more people (when the students graduate) will be willing to treat the handicapped.”

The goal is to have the clinic open five days a week. Considering the magnitude of the problem of a lack of dental care for the developmentally disabled, it might seem like opening one dental clinic is far from enough to address the need.

Glick said he is not discouraged.

"It may be a pebble in the ocean," he said. "For every pebble you get a ripple and we're hoping other people will see what we're doing and want to help us."

For more information about Desert Friends of the Developmentally Disabled, call Benson at 760-832-6555, email her at dfddnow@me.com or visit the organization’s website at www.dfddnow.org.