Chapel Hill town council may oppose dental clinic closing

CorrespondentOctober 26, 2010 

— Town Council member Penny Rich will ask her colleagues Wednesday night to formally oppose the county commissioners’ decision to close the county dental clinic in Car Mill Mall.

Last month, the commissioners voted 5-2 to consolidate dental services in Hillsborough, saving the county’s budget $65,000. Commissioners Alice Gordon and Mike Nelson voted against closing the Carrboro clinic.

Rich said the decision left her stunned.

“Maybe I am naïve, but I didn’t think it would happen,” she said. “This is not the way we take care of people in our county.”

The county is proposing a voucher system, for those who qualify, to cover the $4 bus trip to Hillsborough. The trip requires taking a Chapel Hill Transit bus to catch the 420 bus to Hillsborough, and then walking several blocks west to the Hillsborough Clinic in the Whitted Building. The voucher system will cost the county $8,000 a year.

Orange County Commissioner Steve Yuhasz serves as a liaison to the Orange County Board of Health. He says the decision to consolidate services has been considered since 2008.

Yuhasz says the board was reluctant to close the Car Mill location but concluded the county could best serve citizens through a full-time dental clinic in a single location.

Since the Hillsborough location already existed and would be much more easily and economically converted into a full-time clinic, that was the recommendation, he said.

Town Council member Lauren Easthom, who is a dentist, plans to support Rich’s resolution. ‘We’re talking about health care. Their decision was reducing easy access to health care for some of the poorest citizens in our county. We all have tight budgets.”

She says the inconvenience of traveling to Hillsborough will cause people to put off seeing a dentist until it is absolutely necessary.

“People [will] put off dental care if they find it too hard to take off from work to take two buses to receive care.” Easthom said. She hopes the commissioners will rescind their decision, as the Town Council did when citizens spoke out against the council’s 2008 vote to offer health benefits to members after they leave elected office.

Orange County Manager Frank Clifton couldn’t comment on whether the Hillsborough clinic would keep some from seeking care and said the transportation details still need to be flushed out.

“We were spending $65,000 to rent space that was only open two days a week. Some of the money saved could go into transportation. We’re still looking into the details.”

Clifton noted that other options in southern Orange include UNC’s Dental School and Piedmont Health Services Carrboro Community Health Center.

But in letters to Orange County Health Director Rosemary Summers, both the dental school and Piedmont Health Center stated their clinics were already overloaded. For the fiscal year 2009-10, the Car Mill Mall clinic had 1,735 visits and was open two days a week on average. The Hillsborough clinic had 2,391 visits and was open, on average, three days a week.

Clifton says a long-term, general goal for the county has been to open a free-standing dental clinic off Homestead Road.

In Carrboro, Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell says she has spoken to Rich and plans to draft her own resolution asking the Board of Alderman to oppose the county’s closing the Carrboro dental clinic.

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