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USM working with SmilePartners to help financially struggling people receive dental care

The University of Southern Maine is working with a growing list of partners in the community to ease barriers for people with limited means to access high quality comprehensive dental health care.

Many people want to re-establish preventive dental care but are frightened away by introductory appointments which even on sliding fee scales start at about $130, including an exam, cleaning and x-rays.

"People look into the costs and get daunted if they just don't have the ability to pay for it out-of-pocket and don't have dental insurance," said Becca Matusovich, a policy associate at the Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy within USM's Muskie School of Public Service.

SmilePartners, a collaborative initiative coordinated by USM, provides oral health literacy education to participants with on-the-ground implementation led by community health workers. Participants receive dental care services on a sliding fee scale. The successes of the pilot program include an 80% completion rate and 97% appointment adherence, with 80% of participants planning to continue preventive appointments.

The SmilePartners initiative reflects joint leadership by multiple community organizations, including Maine Access Immigrant Network, Community Financial Literacy, Community Dental, City of Portland Public Health Division's Minority Health Program, MaineHealth/CarePartners, University of New England College of Dental Medicine, and cPort Credit Union. The collaboration has also begun to draw in new community partners while it works to identify new populations who may be interested in the model.

SmilePartners began in 2013 as a work group of the Greater Portland Refugee and Immigrant Health Collaborative. Preventive dental care was identified as a high-priority issue among New Mainers, and a pilot program was funded by the DentaQuest Foundation, Northeast Delta Dental Foundation, and Maine Health Access Foundation. SmilePartners matches funds saved by program participants while helping them navigate the dental health system. With great results from the initial pilot, the original investors have now been joined by the Cumberland District Public Health Council, which supported the SmilePartners initiative as part of its Oral Health priority with funds from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We're excited to reach people who currently don't see an affordable way of going into a dentist's office and receiving care," said Matusovich, who was honored in June with the Oral Health Equity Hero Award by the Regional Health Equity Councils' Oral Health Workgroup.

Key recent successes include:

• The Northeast Delta Dental Foundation has awarded SmilePartners a new grant of $25,000 to help the group continue to build and expand the collaborative model. "We are proud to support SmilePartners' efforts to increase awareness of the importance of good oral health and educate New Mainers on the dental health system," said Treasurer of the Northeast Delta Dental Foundation, Kathleen B. Walker, APR. The Betterment Fund has also committed a two-year grant to support this work.

• The United Way of Greater Portland announced in June that it will be investing $51,826 in the project to help make progress on Thrive2027, three ten-year community-wide goals. "This program is changing lives," said Julie Chase, co-chair of the Thrive2027 Goal 2 Cabinet and the dean of business and community partnerships at Southern Maine Community College. "It not only improves health, but also self-esteem and self-worth for individuals trying to better their lives and economic opportunities."

• Dental students from the University of New England have been leading fundraising efforts - these future dentists presented project partners recently with funds they have raised to support the matched savings component of the program.

SmilePartners has also initiated a cross-campus, cross-disciplinary research partnership between USM and the University of Maine at Farmington, with support from the University of Maine System's Research Reinvestment Fund. Working with faculty at both schools, a graduate assistant in the Muskie School's Master of Public Health program and an undergraduate assistant in UMF's Community Health Promotion program will analyze the needs of low-wage employees and employers in the Portland area and Western Maine. The goal is to create a SmilePartners sponsorship model to help participating employers meet the dental care needs of employees who lack dental coverage.

These recent successes have provided sufficient support for SmilePartners to enroll another group of participants this summer, including to test expansion of the model with young adults who have been in the foster care system as teens.
In the long term, the project partners hope that proving the value of offering an affordable doorway into the dental system will inspire broader efforts to ensure access to the tools of oral health for all people in Maine.