This article was originally published by the Salem Statesman Journal.
Galdina Sanchez Cruz, 43, had never been to a dentist before showing up to a mobile dental clinic Saturday at Chemeketa Community College in Salem.
Her teeth had been hurting for almost a year by the time a neighbor told her about the free mobile clinics held regularly throughout Oregon and Washington.
Medical Teams International and Kaiser Permanente partnered with Mano a Mano Family Center to hold the one Saturday.
The clinic, held in a big red bus, provided on-site dental care, COVID-19 vaccinations, testing for diabetes, general health screenings and health care navigation services like helping people find primary care doctors or access insurance coverage.
Cruz got a filling and an extraction on the dental bus.
“I’m happy because I won’t have this pain anymore, and I can be comfortable,” she said through a translator.
After checking in, community members were able to learn about other health resources such as Salem Free Clinics, which provides free medical and dental care as well as counseling services. Mano a Mano staff also handed out food boxes containing items like rice, beans, chicken and dried chiles.
Offering a helping hand
Mano a Mano already provides health navigation services through its community of health workers as well as support with education, housing and social justice for Latino communities in western Oregon.
They said the need for access to medical and dental care is huge within Latino communities.
“We just want to be that helping hand,” Maria Jaramillo, Mano a Mano family wellness program director, said.
Cruz does not speak English, which can be a barrier to accessing health care. Language barriers can make it difficult to communicate health needs, and while translator services are often available, it can still be a confusing process, explained Jaramillo, of Mano a Mano.
People also may also not be able to take off work to make it to appointments, or they do not understand what type of health benefits they are able to access.
“Our health care system is incredibly confusing,” Catherine Potter, senior program manager of community and social health at Kaiser Permanente, said. “Even people who have coverage don’t know what their coverage includes.”
The clinics are funded by Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit Dollars and all services provided are free. Community partners are given grants to support the clinic operations.
Breaking down barriers
Serving the community using a mobile clinic model is not new for Kaiser Permanente or Medical Teams.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, the two organizations partnered to provide mobile COVID-19 vaccination and testing clinics, focusing on serving rural communities in Oregon and Washington.
In 2021, 12,153 vaccinations were administered through 298 community-based clinics throughout the Pacific Northwest, Potter said.
She said one thing became clear through that work: “The people who face barriers to getting COVID vaccinations face barriers to getting other types of care.”
When reaching out to community-based organizations to better understand those barriers, many communicated a need for dental care.
By partnering with Medical Teams, which has been providing mobile medical and dental work for decades, Kaiser Permanente was able to help create an initiative that is “addressing community health needs broadly,” Potter said.
'Care and connect'
The joint ‘Care and Connect’ Program begins by providing essential care to communities at mobile clinics. From there, community members can move into more sustainable and consistent care at local primary care and counseling offices.
They hope to reach people who might be confused about or afraid of coming into the health care system.
“That brings our team joy to be able to get out there and get to people” Cindy Breilh, executive director of U.S. programs at Medical Teams International, said.
About 25% of the population in Oregon is on Medicaid, while 6% is uninsured, Breilh said.
“That’s a lot of people who may feel disenfranchised from our health care system,” she said.
They serve anyone who comes to their clinics, including seniors, veterans, people of color, farm workers and people experiencing homelessness.
“We don’t want our care to be less than the best when we’re serving these populations,” said Breilh.
Through the Care and Connect Program, Medical Teams staff has completed 16,206 dental procedures so far during 487 clinics. Nearly 41% of patients served were people of color.
Saturday's clinic accepted walk-ins on a first-come, first-served basis, no appointments required. It assisted 225 people Saturday, Mano a Mano told the Statesman Journal.
Sydney Wyatt covers healthcare inequities in the Mid-Willamette Valley for the Statesman Journal. You can contact her at [email protected], by phone (503) 399-6613, or on Twitter @sydney_elise44
The Statesman Journal’s coverage of healthcare inequities is funded in part by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which seeks to strengthen the cultural, social, educational, and spiritual base of the Pacific Northwest through capacity-building investments in the nonprofit sector.