California Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) made a stop at Eureka’s Burre Dental Center on Thursday as part of a tour of Humboldt County following the approval of a $1 million appropriation for the facility.
The seven-figure sum is one of many community project funding appropriations brought forward by Huffman for his North Coast district that were signed into effect as part of the U.S. omnibus appropriations bill. A total of $13.5 million were destined to projects in the district.
“We really tried to look for projects that would have the most bang for the buck,” the congressman said Thursday morning. “For a million dollars, to provide this additional capacity to a facility that’s meeting such a community need, it’s really a great, great example of how these dollars can make an impact.”
The funding will help expand the clinic to make more space for six additional operatories, extra office space, a lab, a call center and a sterilization station, as planned in a concept layout. The funds will also finance the hiring of two more dentists and training for a dental resident per year.
The extra capacity and staff coming to the facilities is estimated to provide dental care services to an estimated 5,600 to 8,000 visitors per year. The clinic currently sees an estimated 30,000 annual visitors.
Huffman explained Open Door’s dental clinic was chosen for funding after issuing a request for proposal for funds, which went through a very rigorous process. While Open Door staff did not have specific numbers on hand, they told the Times-Standard there is a significant unmet need for dental care services. A pre-pandemic survey compiling this information was included in the proposal for the federal funding.
Open Door senior vice president of development Cheyenne Spetzler said the starting steps in the expansion effort include having the clinic’s facilities manager determine what can be done with the space available and have an architect develop plans to take to the city for permitting. She estimates it will be a seven-month process to get the permits. Contractor Ron Lingard will be managing the project as he has already done work on the structure twice in the past.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to expand here because we’re on a good roll,” Spetzler said. “We’ve had adult dental and it’s stuck, and so now there’s all this need that we haven’t been able to meet. Having more access will help them, so we really appreciate the opportunity.”
Burre Dental Center will look to hire six more staff members to fill the stations coming to the expanded facility.
“The more expansion and the more rooms that we have, the more we can recruit the doctors and staff so that we can see more patients, that alone will give us a bigger pool of patients that we can see,” said Carter Wright, Open Door’s director of dentistry.
He pointed out that as fewer private practitioners in the area accepted Medicare demand at the clinic increased.
“There used to be a lot of private dentists that accepted Medicare, but they kept lowering the reimbursement and increasing the paperwork and they just simply opted out. So that was an additional load for us,” Wright stated.
Last week, the clinic held an open house and is looking to train their own registered dental assistants as dental programs resume.
“So we’ll invest about $5,000 in a person who is interested in learning how to be a registered dental assistant to get trained in house, on the floor, and we will pay for them to go through the certification recognizing that it’s more about a person’s interest in the dental field than necessarily having that specific training because we can train for that,” said Sam Hani, Burre Dental Clinic site administrator.
Despite the expansion plans, Wright laments the ongoing lack of available dental care in Humboldt County and believes that more access is sorely needed.
“It hurts us that we can’t get to everybody. I’m here because I want to treat people and see as many as we can, but the limitations are based on so many things, and even with this expansion, we still will not have the capacity to see everybody. So we’re working on different projects so that we can create greater access,” he said.
As part of his visit to Humboldt County, Huffman spoke to a high school class and had tours of the Sequoia Park Zoo’s Sky Walk and Fortuna’s Wild Souls Ranch. Prior to his stop at the clinic, he toured the Nordic Aquafarms facility and the Samoa Dunes area to speak with conservation groups. He did not convene with groups working on offshore wind energy projects, but stated he has met with these in the past.
Mario Cortez can be reached at 707-441-0526.