Thursday, June 7, 2001

Public dentist faces
tall order on Big Island

By Rod Thompson
Big Island correspondent

HILO >> Newly arrived U.S. Public Health Service dentist Paul Young was shocked when he learned that a Big Island man died in 1992 from an infected tooth and jaw.

"I don't remember the last time I heard of a patient dying of a dental infection," Young said.

The death was a deciding factor in Young's selection of the Big Island as his new post, following nine years in a town north of Tampa, Fla.

Arriving on the Big Island this month, Young spent Monday pulling four teeth in a Mobile Care van run by the Catholic Office for Social Ministry and St. Francis Healthcare System.

Assigned to the private, nonprofit Bay Clinic, Young will operate from a new permanent dental facility when the clinic opens it in Keaau, south of Hilo, early next year.

The Bay Clinic currently provides medical care for low-income people, but no permanent facility currently provides dental care for low-income, uninsured people or Quest and Medicaid beneficiaries.

The death of Lance Lawrence, due to the fact that no Big Island dentist would treat him because he was a welfare recipient, took place in 1992.

But Stephanie Launiu, head of the Bay Clinic, suggests that conditions are not much better today.

Last year, Hawaii was rated 51st in the nation for low-income dental care, she said. "It's pretty bad. I think (Young) is going to be overwhelmed very soon," she said.

Improvement has taken place. Since Mobile Care began in 1997, the van has provided services for 5,500 patient visits, said Mobile Care coordinator Kaye Lundburg. But the population needing service is 30,000 people, 20 percent of the island's people.

And the van provides only emergency care, she said.

Launiu explained, "That means tooth pulling." There will be no fillings. Patients' lives will be saved but their teeth will be lost.

Young will also do preventive education. Charitable donations -- he got $70,000 in Florida -- are also needed, he said.

Lundburg said Young's presence enables Mobile Care, now staffed by local dentists volunteering their time, to go to four from two days of service per week in East Hawaii.

A special appropriation of $100,000 by the state Legislature will also allow expansion of services on both sides of the island, she said.

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