The SmileMobile: Vancouver woman travels to Longview for dental treatment


LONGVIEW – The drive from Vancouver to Longview was worth it for Nakia Aalvik. She needed a dental appointment for herself and her two children.

Before her visit, it had been over a year since the 29-year-old, her 3-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter had their teeth checked. Aalvik said the delay was in part due to the pandemic and difficulty finding a clinic that accepts Medicaid patients.

“Last time around I drove for hours to get there,” she said. “With the kids, it makes it 10 times harder.”

The family took turns having their teeth checked and fluoride varnished applied on the SmileMobile, a bus that was parked at the Cowlitz Tribal Health Clinic earlier this month.

“It was awesome,” Aalvik said after his appointment. “It was so good because it had been a long time since I had been able to have a checkup.”

It was reassuring to hear that her children had no problem with their teeth, despite it being her daughter’s first date.

The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed dental care for many patients, but even before the pandemic, more than half of all residents in Cowlitz State and County on Medicaid were not using their dental benefits, according to the State Health Care Authority. Dentists and oral health programs say people don’t realize they have dental coverage or that they can’t find a place that is taking Medicaid.

Without the clinic, Aalvik, a member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe, said she would have had a similar problem finding medical and dental care for her children.

“It’s not always easy to get dental appointments, so this is a great opportunity,” she said. “They don’t normally do dental work here, so I took full advantage of it.”

Connect to care

The SmileMobile and other national and local programs help Medicaid clients better understand what services are covered and find dental clinics that take their insurance. The bus has traveled across the state since 1995 and has visited Cowlitz County on several occasions.

“We really try to be in the communities where there is a need and connect people,” said Karri Amundson, Senior Program Officer.

In addition to providing dental services, SmileMobile’s primary function is to refer patients to a local clinic through Dental Link or the Access to Baby and Child Dentistry program for ages 6 and under, Amundson said. The programs, run by the Arcora Foundation, help patients find clinics that take their insurance or provide services on a sliding scale for the uninsured.

Amundson said there was a need statewide for more providers to accept Medicaid patients.

The Family Health Center has three dental clinics: in Longview, Woodland and Ocean Park. The organization primarily sees patients on Apple Health or who are uninsured, said dental director Dr David Meyers.

He added that many patients are behind in care and may have lost the habit of coming regularly. At the start of the pandemic, many people did not want to leave their homes, he said. Some do not want to come to appointments because face masks are still mandatory in health facilities.

“We’re seeing a lot of no-shows, but it’s unclear how many are linked to the pandemic,” Meyers said.

The organization is also short on staff and has several open positions that it “would like to fill so that we can help see the number of patients who need care,” said Meyers.

Some Family Health Center patients don’t realize they have dental coverage through public insurance, and the coverage can be quite complex, Meyers said.


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