Sullivan panel OKs plan to put children's dental clinic in Kingsport

J. H. Osborne • Mar 6, 2007 at 4:48 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - The Sullivan County Regional Health Department's plan to add a children's dental clinic to its Kingsport location could be on again.

On Monday, the Sullivan County Commission's Administrative Committee unanimously endorsed the plan.

Health Department Director Gary Mayes said last month's decision to back off, at least temporarily, on opening the clinic came after "offline" conversations with some commissioners.

"I felt commissioners wished I would not add those two chairs to Kingsport," Mayes said.

The addition of a dentist, a hygienist and two dental chairs to the Kingsport office - the health department already provides a dental clinic for children in Blountville - has been on the drawing board since at least early 2006. Money to pay for it was included in this year's county budget.

But the project was idled, county commissioners were told last month by County Mayor Steve Godsey, after the county received complaints of encroachment from a private dental practice.

Dentists Angel and Clayton Mullins, who are married, have complained to county officials that expansion of the health department's dental services for children threatens their private practice, Watauga Dental Center, on Watauga Street.

Angel Mullins attended the Sullivan County Commission's February meeting to bring attention to the couple's opposition to the health department's plan to provide dental care for children at the department's Kingsport office.

The health department offers dental care to children on TennCare and to those who pay cash.

Angel and Clayton Mullins say they and their partners opened Watauga Dental Center in May 2006 to serve the same population - and that the practice will and can provide dental care to the children in question.

In answer to the Mullinses' complaints, Godsey said he and Mayes had agreed to idle the county's plans to offer dental care for children in Kingsport.

Godsey said the aim is to give the private sector a chance to provide the services - and if that proves successful, the county can take another look at how to proceed.

Godsey said he'd bring a formal proposal to do such to county commissioners this month.

"We don't want to be seen as competing with the private sector," Godsey said.

On Monday, some members of the Administrative Committee said they agree government shouldn't compete with private enterprise - but said their larger concern is long-term availability of dental care to children in need.

Mayes said he agreed, philosophically, that government shouldn't compete with business, "but the real question is what happens when TennCare payments drop and it's less profitable?"

Mayes said the health department is sending letters to all local dentists who accept TennCare to see if they are accepting new patients - especially younger children, who are sometimes more challenging to have as patients. A list of those accepting new patients will be compiled and distributed to parents who contact the health department seeking dental treatment for their children, Mayes said.

Last year, the commission approved funding to expand the health department's children's dental clinic by offering dental care at the Kingsport location.

The plan was to have the new services up and running by last month.

The health department's children's dental clinic stays booked about three months in advance, and sometimes it takes days for its patients to secure even an emergency visit, Mayes said.

And the health department has a hard time finding local dentists to take emergency cases any quicker, he said.

Mayes said the additional funding - about $183,000 - was to add a chair to the dental clinic's Blountville location, and for the first time place two chairs at the health department's Kingsport office at Wilcox Drive and East Sullivan Street.

If the County Commission ultimately tells Mayes not to add the chairs in Kingsport, Mayes said the money not spent will be returned to the county's general fund.

The County Commission's Executive Committee and Budget Committee will also hear from Mayes on the issue, at 6 p.m. Wednesday and 7 p.m. Thursday, respectively.

The health department's dental program serves patients up to but not including the age of 21.

Last May, when the County Commission was first looking at the proposed expansion of services, the dental clinic had averaged 270 appointments per month since it opened Aug. 30, 2004, Mayes said.

The health department operates two medical offices - one in Blountville and one in downtown Kingsport. The current dental clinic is in an annex near the Blountville medical office.

Dental care has been identified by the health department as the number one health care need in the county.

For more information about the Sullivan County Regional Health Department visit www.sullivanhealth.org.

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