Free clinic adds dental program

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Dr. David Keim, right, extracts a tooth from Angela Sutton’s mouth Monday night during the Shepherd’s Hand Clinic at Christ Lutheran Church in Whitefish. (Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake)

Shepherd’s Hand Clinic in Whitefish is launching a new dental program that will begin offering free care to low-income Flathead Valley residents on Jan. 13.

Dental care is the latest addition to the free clinic, which already provides weekly free community meals, medical care and a wellness program at Christ Lutheran Church.

Space in the clinic area of the church is being converted to accommodate three dental chairs and a sterilization facility. The plan is to have two dentists treating patients each Monday night, volunteer Clinic Director Meg Erickson said.

Dr. David Keim, who has a private practice in Kalispell at Glacier Dental Group, will oversee the new program as dental director. So far, he has recruited 21 local dentists to volunteer at the free clinic on a rotating basis. Keim is looking for additional dentists, dental assistants and dental hygienists to round out the volunteer staff.

“I’m excited with the number of dental volunteers we have,” Keim said. “It’s a huge encouragement.”

Keim, who has a background in public-health dentistry and spent 5 1/2 years in Browning earlier in his career, said the volunteer staff will focus on a public-health philosophy of care.

“We want to treat as many people as possible,” he said.

Emergent care needs— namely patients with toothaches — will be the first priority, he said. Beyond that treatment will be based on the severity of the dental problem.

There also will be an emphasis on working with patients who want to improve their dental health.

“We want to be good stewards of our resources,” Erickson said. “We want patients who are willing to work toward good health values.”

People without insurance who are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for dental care. The program is open to all Flathead Valley residents.

Erickson said the dental program aims to address a growing need for dental care among low-income residents.

The Flathead City-County Health Department offers dental care on a sliding-fee scale, with fees starting at $40, but many people can’t afford even that minimum fee, Erickson pointed out.

“Eighty-four percent of our [free clinic] patients are at or below the federal poverty level,” she said. “Forty percent are employed but have no insurance ... we’re a niche organization. We’re not here to duplicate services.”

One of the goals of the dental program is to alleviate the number of emergency-room visits to local hospitals from patients with severe tooth pain, Keim said.

Jason Spring, chief executive officer of North Valley Hospital in Whitefish, said the hospital’s ER staff sees many patients with dental problems who have either put off getting preventive care or have no financial means of obtaining it. North Valley recently gave $5,000 for the dental clinic startup.

“We learned more about our community’s need for affordable dental care during our recent community health needs assessment,” Spring said. “While providing primary dental care is not a service that we currently provide, we’re pleased to provide financial support to Shepherd’s Hand Clinic who is championing the process to bring oral care to our citizens who otherwise would not be able to obtain services.”

Kalispell Regional Medical Center and its physician collaboration hospital, The HealthCenter, each have given $5,000 to the dental clinic. Tony Patterson, chief administrative officer of parent company Kalispell Regional Healthcare, also pointed to its needs assessment that found access to dental care for the uninsured to be one of the greatest community health needs.

Dental patients can sign up for appointments during the community meal that begins at 5:30 p.m. each Monday. Dental Assistant Alicia Leukuma, the dental program’s only paid staff member, will be on hand weekly to screen patients, coordinate appointments and work alongside the dentists.

“We provide an extra set of hands,” Leukuma said about the role of dental assistants.

Keim has been on the front line of public-health dentistry locally. Last year he organized a dental clinic for Project Homeless Connect. He also has led a pilot program for Sealants for Smiles in local elementary schools.

He calls his volunteer public-health work “feel-good dentistry.” When people choose to become a dentist or medical doctor, the key underlying goal, he said, is their desire to help people.

The kind of volunteer atmosphere at Shepherd’s Hand Clinic allows health-care professionals to participate in that collaborative environment.

Erickson agreed, noting that the clinic as a whole “provides a meaningful place for people to serve.”

Founded in 1995 as an outreach ministry of Christ Lutheran Church, Shepherd’s Hand is the only free health clinic in the area. Buoyed by enthusiastic community support, it has expanded through the years to meet needs as they arise.

One of the latest programs — Move to Improve — uses volunteer health coaches to inspire participants to establish habits of regular exercise and nutritional eating that can reduce or even eliminate health risk factors.

There are many reasons people find themselves at the door of Shepherd’s Hand. Some have no health insurance; others have lost their jobs. Even though the Flathead Valley has come through the recession, times are still tough for many families.

In 2012, Shepherd’s Hand logged 1,726 patient visits, caring for more than 560 people. So far this year the clinic  as tallied 1,600 patient visits.

Two years ago Shepherd’s Hand started a permanent endowment fund to strengthen the infrastructure of the clinic and ensure future sustainability. The goal is to raise $1 million by 2015. To date $770,000 has been raised, Erickson said.

A matching challenge grant of $250,000 from Whitefish philanthropists Dave and Sherry Lesar was met during that fundraising campaign.

Recently Sherry Lesar offered a separate $30,000 matching challenge in honor of her grandmother, Lena Lamphere, for the dental program startup. That challenge also was met.

In addition to the donations from the hospitals, Whitefish Community Foundation gave $25,000 toward the dental clinic startup and many individuals have donated to the project. Shepherd’s Hand hopes to raise another $30,000 to $40,000 for the dental program, which will operate on an annual budget of about $40,000.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at


Doctors Young Stebbins-Han, right, and Bob Bowman talk with a patient Monday night during at the Shepherd's Hand Clinic at Christ Lutheran Church in Whitefish.

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