BRISTOL — A new dental practice has opened in the BristolWorks business complex that aims to expand dental coverage to residents of all walks of life throughout the five-town area.
The clinic, Red Clover Family Dentistry, opened last month and is headed by Patrick Rowe, D.D.S.
Rowe said the practice will accept Medicaid, and will offer a sliding scale payment system for patients who need assistance paying their bill.
“It’s not free care, but it’s a recognition that if you’re low-income and don’t have insurance, paying full price at the dentist is probably not part of your economic reality,” Rowe said.
Red Clover will be a partner of the Mountain Health Center in Bristol, which gained status as a Federally Qualified Health Center in the fall. The FQHC status makes the center eligible for grants to help it provide access to primary and preventative health care services.
“We’re in the final stages of getting our partnership agreement,” Rowe said. “We will work very closely to provide services.”
Rowe said he wants everyone who walks through the doors of Red Clover Dentistry to feel welcomed.
Rowe said it cost $450,000 to open the nonprofit Red Clover Dentistry practice. About $90,000 was raised through private donations; another $300,000 was acquired through state grants.
Rowe is a native of Niskayuna, N.Y., in the state’s capital region. He completed his undergraduate studies at Colgate University, where he “endured the toothpaste jokes,” and attended dentistry school at SUNY Buffalo.
How Rowe made it to Bristol, just 150 miles from his hometown, is a longer story.
Rowe did a one-year general practice residency at the Veterans Affairs medical center in San Francisco. He said this experience narrowed his focus on providing dental care to those who most needed it.
Rowe said that in order to qualify for dental benefits through the VA, veterans either had to be disabled or have been a prisoner of war for more than 90 days. The result was that he spent much of his time managing emergencies.
“The only people I was working with were really disabled or vets with a lot of issues they were dealing with,” Rowe said. “We didn’t see your average vet who got out of the service healthy and just needed a checkup — the cases we were seeing were pretty complex.”
After the residency, Rowe did some work for private practices in the San Francisco Bay area before moving to Santa Cruz to join a Federally Qualified Health Center.
“At the time, I think it was one of a kind in the country to have an FQHC that only did dentistry,” Rowe said.
The practice had four dentists and 10 dental chairs, but was tasked with serving all of Santa Cruz County, some 262,000 residents. Rowe likened it to having three dental practices in the state of Vermont.
“It was a pretty bleak landscape with six to eight months to get an appointment,” Rowe said. “We were just churning through patients, desperately trying to get through emergencies every day.”
Rowe said this experience inspired him to go back to school. He enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, and completed a master’s degree in public health. He planned on returning to the Bay Area, but was recruited by the Vermont Department of Health to become the state dental director.
Rowe packed up his things and moved 3,000 miles east to Burlington, where he served the state from 2009 to 2011.
Rowe’s vision of Vermont as a temporary stint evaporated a year in, when he met his wife, Rachel, whom he married last month. The couple have lived in Monkton the last two years. During that time, Rowe worked part-time at practices in Winooski and Morrisville, and did consulting work for the New York State Department of Health and a dental health project in Washington, D.C.
Rowe also joined the board of the Addison County Dental Center.
“I’d just moved to Monkton and wanted to get involved in getting good access to dental care in the region,” he said.
Rowe said he did not initially plan to become the dentist for the new practice, but over the course of six months board President Peg Martin changed his mind.
“She succeeded in convincing me that I was going to be the dentist, and that I didn’t have a choice about it,” Rowe joked. “I know they had four or five dentists they’d looked at, but nothing worked out.”
NOT JUST POOR PEOPLE
“I want this to feel like that dental practice you go to in Bristol, regardless of whether you’ve got a million dollars or make $10,000 a year,” Rowe said. “No matter who you are I want you to feel welcome here, and we will do everything we can to make sure you can afford care here.”
Rowe said he does not want people to view his practice has just for low-income residents.
“I don’t want this to feel like the dental clinic for poor people — if that’s the way things end up going, we will have failed,” Rowe said. “I think that’s one of the things that’s a holdover from my time in Santa Cruz; the thing I really wanted was a solution where people don’t feel like this was the place of last resort.”
Rowe said it is important to provide care for those who otherwise might not be able to afford it, because preventative care like annual checkups can help avoid more serious problems down the road.
“We’d get to things before they became emergencies,” Rowe said. “You stop people from going to the ER for preventative care. That’s becoming a bigger problem.”
Rowe is the only dentist at Red Clover dentistry, which is currently open just three days a week— Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. It is accepting new patients. Rowe said if all goes well, he would look to expand the practice. It currently has three chairs and employs four people: Rowe, a receptionist, a dental hygienist and a dental assistant.
“Once we get busy we’ll expand to five to six days a week,” Rowe said. “I think that if the demand is there, you can have two providers here, two dentists here every day.”
After working all over the country, often with long commutes, Rowe said it is rewarding to work in the same community he calls home.
“I think it’s always been a dream of mine to focus my whole public health background on the fact that I’ve got some creative ways to help people out, in the area that I live,” Rowe said. “It feels really good to be working in the same place, and not commuting somewhere else, and just knowing I can make a difference with my neighbors.”