APPALACHIA — The dental assistant lab at Mountain Empire Community College got a practical workout Tuesday in what the school hopes will be a regular event.

Dr. Emily Bowen, instructor for the college’s dental assistant program, said Tuesday’s clinic also helped spread the word about care available under Virginia’s Medicaid expansion.

“Health care is one of the biggest issues we hear about from our students,” said Bowen. “A lot of students don’t realize that the Medicaid expansion covers dental care.”

Tuesday’s seven-hour clinic, at the college’s Center for Workforce Innovation in Appalachia, included Health Wagon support through dentist Olivia Stallard and dental assistant and MECC program graduate Taylor Perry. Each of 10 students visiting got cleanings, a basic dental exam and — if needed — a referral for additional care.

Anthem HealthKeepers also sponsored the clinic, Bowen said, supplying dental hygiene kits and information on Medicaid enrollment eligibility and medical services covered under the program since the expansion opened in July.

Misty Lee, Anthem HealthKeeper’s community relations coordinator for Virginia, said the Medicaid expansion means single adults can enroll in what originally was a program mainly for older people and low-income families.

“It’s income-based,” said Lee, “and it’s so beneficial for college students, especially with COVID-19 and so many people who may have lost their jobs.”

Lee added that having access to preventive care under Medicaid helps people avoid catastrophic medical expenses later in life.

“We had three times the requests than we had available appointments today,” Bowen said. “That speaks highly to the demand for dental care in the region.

Perry, who earned her program certificate in July before joining the Health Wagon, credited Bowen with getting her ready for her profession.

“I felt very prepared, especially with clinicals,” Perry said as she prepared instruments for the day. “I like it when we travel to sites, and it’s good to be able to come back to MECC for this.”

Lakin Phipps — one of Bowen’s current students — was first on deck for the clinic.

“I’m getting a cleaning and exam today,” Phipps said. “It’ll be weird because I’ll be knowing what’s going on during the exam.”

While there are general dentistry practices in Wise County and Norton, Bowen said there is a lack of dental specialists in areas like orthodontics and oral surgery.

“In many cases, patients may have to travel outside the area or out of state for things like a root canal,” Bowen said. “We have a very good orthodontic dentist who comes to the area two or three days a week, but a lot of referrals have to go to other areas.”

Bowen said she hopes to see Tuesday’s event become a regular clinic for MECC students and staff.

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