The SmileMobile: Vancouver woman heads to Longview in search for dental care

LONGVIEW — The drive from Vancouver to Longview was worth it for Nakia Aalvik. She needed a dental appointment for herself and her two children.

Before her visit, it had been more than a year since the 29-year-old, her 3-year-old son and her 2-year-old daughter had their teeth checked. Aalvik said the delay was in part due to the pandemic and due to the difficulty of finding a clinic that takes Medicaid patients.

“Last time, I drove hours to get there,” she said. “With kids, it makes things 10 times harder.”

The family took turns getting their teeth checked and fluoride varnish applied in the SmileMobile, a bus that was parked at the Cowlitz Tribal Health Clinic earlier this month.

“It was great,” Aalvik said after her appointment. “It was so nice because it’s been awhile since I could have a checkup.”

It was reassuring to hear that her children didn’t have any problems with their teeth, despite it being her daughter’s first appointment.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed dental care for many patients, but even before the pandemic, more than half of all state and Cowlitz County residents on Medicaid didn’t use their dental benefits, according to the State Health Care Authority. Dentists and oral health programs say people don’t realize they have dental coverage or they can’t find a place that takes Medicaid.

Without the clinic, Aalvik, a Cowlitz Indian Tribe member, said she would have had a similar problem finding medical and dental care for her children.

“It isn’t always easy getting dentist appointments, so this is a great opportunity,” she said. “They don’t normally do dental here, so I took full advantage of it.”

Connecting to care

The SmileMobile and other state and local programs help Medicaid clients better understand what services are covered and find dental clinics that take their insurance. The bus has traveled across the state since 1995 and visited Cowlitz County many times.

“We’re really trying to be in communities where there is a need and getting people connected,” said senior program officer Karri Amundson.

Apart from providing dental services, the SmileMobile’s major function is referring patients to a local clinic through Dental Link or the Access to Baby and Child Dentistry program for those 6 and younger, Amundson said. The programs, run by the Arcora Foundation, help patients find clinics that take their insurance or provide services on a sliding scale for the uninsured.

Amundson said there is a need statewide for more providers to accept Medicaid patients.

Family Health Center has three dental clinics: in Longview, Woodland and Ocean Park. The organization primarily sees patients on Apple Health or who are uninsured, dental director Dr. David Meyers said.

He added that many patients are behind on care and may have gotten out of the habit of coming in regularly. At the beginning of the pandemic, many people didn’t want to leave home, he said. Some do not want to come to appointments because face masks are still required in health-care facilities.

“We see a large number of no-shows, but it’s unclear how many are related to the pandemic,” Meyers said.

The organization is also short staffed and has several positions open that it would “love to fill so that we could help to see the number of patients that need care,” Meyers said.

Some Family Health Center patients don’t realize they have dental coverage through state insurance, and the coverage can be quite complex, Meyers said.