Bad news for low-income students

Steven Mendez of Mott Haven participates in the city’s school-based Oral Health Program. The program is slated for elimination.

Dr. Margaret Mahoney is a school dentist based in the Bronx. She works at P.S. 21, P.S. 33 and P.S. 76. Her teeny patients are poor. If it weren’t for the city’s Oral Health Program, many wouldn’t see a dentist at all.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is ready to eliminate the program, a staple for 95 years. The city will save $2.5 million. More than 17,000 low-income children participate in OHP; dentists like Mahoney perform 35,000 exams each year. Barring a miracle, the program will cease to exist on June 30.

“I’m devastated,” Mahoney said. “I don’t want to abandon the kids.”

OHP operates out of 46 schools and community clinics, including P.S. 21, P.S. 76, P.S. 30, P.S. 33, P.S. 130, P.S. 179/369 and Sharon Baptist Head Start in the Bronx. According to the Department of Health spokeswoman Celina De Leon, 92 dentists, hygienists and assistants will be laid off.

The DOH expects community providers to fill the void. Montefiore Medical Center could operate one or more of the school clinics, for example. More than 3,000 NYC dentists accept Medicaid, and Medicaid covers dental care. But dentists who accept Medicaid are unable to provide emergency care, according to Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. In March, Gotbaum released a report on OHP. Only 12 percent of Medicaid dentists surveyed could schedule an exam within 24 hours. Gotbaum found the program to be cost-effective – $147 per student, and recommended that Bloomberg alter his plan. Few Medicaid dentists are qualified to see children.

A veteran OHP dental assistant who asked not to be named treats her patients like family. The assistant’s school is located in a Bronx immigrant neighborhood; she knows how to soothe children who are afraid of the dentist’s chair.

“There is such a need for the program,” the assistant said. “Ninety-nine percent of the kids I see have at least one cavity.”

Bronx parents struggle to secure dental care. When Niokka Jackson of Norwood takes her daughter to the dentist, she misses work and her daughter misses school.

“The school dentist is a blessing,” Jackson said. “It took six months to schedule an appointment at Bronx-Lebanon.”

P.S. 369 parent Euclide Waldez helped circulate a petition to support the OHP. Kids in Mott Haven need the school dentist. Most students at P.S. 179/369 sign up for OHP, according to a school administrator who asked not to be named. Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo will ask Bloomberg to save the program. Low-income kids encounter more dental problems and side-affects, like heart disease and diabetes.

Bloomberg will introduce his final budget on May 1. According to spokeswoman Maureen Connelly, the SEIU will lobby against the program’s elimination. In the end, NYC will spend more on emergency room visits, Connelly said.

More from Around NYC