East Kern loses critical program

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

East Kern loses critical programEast Kern appears to have been cut out of a program designed to give children access to comprehensive dental care, much to the dismay of advocates serving communities for the last 11 years through the Kern County Children’s Dental Health Network.

The program, which operated as a First 5 Kern partnership between Taft College and Kern County Superintendent of Schools, sent professionals into private and public schools throughout the remote areas of East Kern County, screening for the dental hygiene needs of students and helping them seek treatment.

Last week, these professionals were alerted that the board of Taft College, which apparently had grant funding to provide hygiene students to the program, was voting Wednesday night to discontinue service in East Kern.

According to Paula Salcido, child and family services facilitator for KCCDHN, children up to age 5 will still be able to access treatment through a referral process that allows school nurses to facilitate appointments.

“Unfortunately, due to state rules and regional accreditation guidelines, the dental hygiene students are released, in a limited amount, from classroom time to participate in the grant activities. Consequently resulting in some reduction of services for children at school sites,” Salcido wrote in response to News Review inquiries about the drivers of the Taft College Board’s decision.

“That explanation does not even make sense,” said Harriet Luzinas-Smith, coordinator of the dental hygiene program in East Kern. “We have not had dental hygiene students participating at all this year and we have still been able to accomplish everything.”

She added that school nurses do not work for the program. “They are not going to go out of their way to work with children outside of their schools, and they are not going to be compensated for their efforts if they do,” said Luzinas-Smith.

“It seems like they are trying to make it sound like we are not being closed down, but we are.”

Luzinas-Smith was among the attendees of Wednesday night’s board meeting. She said she presented a packet of letters of support to Dr. Debra Daniels, president of Taft College. “She refused to hand them out and the board members were not allowed to review them at the meeting.

“In the end, the board voted to end our program in East Kern. They didn’t even table it for further review and discussion.”

Luzinas-Smith noted that the program will continue in West Kern. “But the name of our program even says ‘Kern County.’”

Among those writing letters of support were Jim Suver, CEO of Ridgecrest Regional Hospital.

“I am horrified at this outcome and negative impact on several communities,” he said. “The Ridgecrest dental program was an unqualified success and fit in well with the hospital’s dental clinics; this was an example of a great program that did well.”

He said that despite being a key stakeholder in the discussion, and the provider of free office space to the program for the last several years, he was not consulted in the matter.

“Elimination of this service will lead to both immediate and long-term problems for our community and our hospital. Our pediatric offices will now be struggling to resolve dental issues that in the past had been resolved by the children’s dental program, resulting in longer appointment wait times for other needed physician services.

“Our emergency department will have many more pediatric patients coming for emergent care due to lack of appropriate dental care earlier on in their lives,” his letter continues.

“Elimination of the Ridgecrest dental program will put more children at risk and negatively impact our community’s healthcare.” That does not even take into account the impact on schools and the needless suffering of children.

“Oral health is something that has always been overlooked,” said Luzinas-Smith. “But it has been very well established that if you are in poor oral health, your overall health will be effected. In children we see an increase in ear infections, runny noses and soreness.”

But that’s not the worst, she said. In 2007, the Washington Post published an article titled “For Want of a Dentist,” detailing the tragic case of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver. The boy’s mother was unable to get him into a dentist for a tooth extraction. By the time his aching tooth got attention, the bacteria from the abscess had spread to his brain. After six weeks of hospital care, and two major operations, he died.

Luzinas-Smith pointed out that the new system of access will not kick in until problems have reached a magnitude that not only increase the strain on healthcare resources, but potentially threaten the lives of children whose oral health is being neglected.

“Our program was able to reach out to children before pain, and before decay. By the time a nurse can refer someone now, the problem is going to be much more serious.”

Story First Published: 2017-10-12