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Affordable dentistry in a learning atmosphere

Karla Vandenbergh, 37, is an acupuncturist who lives on the West Side. As a small business owner expecting her first child this year, she can’t afford dental insurance. She has found a brighter smile and preventative dental care – for free – at the Erie Community College Dental Hygiene Clinic.

“The appointments are a little longer,” she said, “but I don’t mind because I find the care very good and you have the secondary support of the instructors. I’ve only had good experiences here, so I recommend it to a lot of people.”

Joann Draggett, 54, of Falconer, works as a purchasing agent for a Jamestown company that doesn’t provide dental health coverage. She hasn’t had much to smile about in recent years. Tooth decay robbed her of several teeth.

“I was self-conscious to begin with,” she said, “but when I lost my front tooth, I wanted to hide.”

Two dentists in the Southern Tier told her it would cost $4,500 to $10,000 to remove the rest of her top teeth and roots, and provide her with an upper denture. A dental resident at the University at Buffalo dental clinic is handling the job this semester for about $2,000.

“A lot of people squawked about me going to Buffalo,” she said, “but this is the best decision I have ever made.”

Vandenbergh and Draggett are among those who have discovered that there are Western New York options in an age when dental care can be costly for workers and non-workers alike – and dental insurance isn’t what it used to be. Those looking to prevent serious problems, or fix them, can save money if they are willing to allow dental professionals in training to do the work, under the watchful gaze of some of the top dental pros in the region.

Many of these supervising dental hygienists, dentists and oral surgeons have gone through the same schools where they now work, mostly part-time. Several of those instructors stressed that their programs are an option for patients concerned about two bottom lines: their pocketbooks and their oral health.

“It takes a little bit longer here because it’s an instructional setting. What you save in dollars, you pay in time spent. So for those who are retired or on a limited income, this is a good place for them,” said Dr. Mindi Paticoff-Weinman, a clinical assistant professor at the UB dental school who has been in practice in Allentown with her husband, Dr. David Weinman, for more than three decades.

The number of those who can use such services continues to increase as dental insurance becomes more costly and inadequate, said Dr. Robert Yetto, owner of Cosmetic Dental Center in Amherst.

The two professors are among many private dentists in the region who refer patients to ECC and UB if it becomes clear to them that someone will skip needed dental care because of the cost. The teeth and gums are a window into overall health, the dentists said, so it’s important that everyone follow through with sound, professional dental care.

Here’s how the two biggest clinics do the job in the Buffalo area for free or lower cost.

ECC Dental Hygiene Clinic

Address: Student Services Building Room S-100, Erie Community College North Campus, Wherle Drive and Youngs Road, Amherst.

Contact information:; 851-1336

Size: 36 chairs

Specialities: Exams, X-rays, screenings, fluoride treatment, cleanings, sealants, making night guards; some work can be done under anaesthesia.

Students: 112

Patients: Open to anyone age 5 and up

Cost: All services are free

Erie Community College offers a host of dental services at the clinic where it trains more than 100 dental hygienist students each year. The two-year program includes a staff of seven dentists and 11 full-time and 14 part-time faculty members who oversee students during 14 clinics a week that run during various times of day.

“Patients are usually in the chair for about two hours. You pay with your time,” said Kimberly Reekie, 21, of Snyder, who will finish her degree this spring.

This is a great time of year to visit the program because half of the students, including Reekie, will soon be working in dental offices, said Lori Kaczor, a full-time associate professor of dental hygiene at ECC. Kaczor, a 1982 graduate of the program, worked as a dental hygienist in several private practices. She started teaching at ECC 16 years ago.

The ECC program gradually introduces students into the clinic as they approach their second semester, Kaczor said. Those students tend to handle simpler procedures involving four patients each semester, under the supervision of trained hygienists and dentists. Second-year students tackle 16 patients each semester, including more difficult cases.

“All of these students need to have the clinical skills,” Kaczor said. “You cannot read those in a text book. The different personalities, patient management skills, you have to experience it.”

Reekie said she sees a range of patients, including many 65 and older who are retired and on fixed incomes, and don’t have dental insurance. “I’ve seen nurses, teachers, office workers, kids, adolescents,” she added. “I’ve had a 5-year-old Girl Scout in my chair. She was adorable. Everyone in my family has been in here at least twice: parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I drag in my boyfriend every semester.”

Vandenbergh, who was in for a cleaning on Monday, said she has encouraged friends and family members to try the clinic, too. She described her hygiene student, Carolyn Volker, as “very gentle, very thorough. She explains everything very well.”

UB Dental

Address: Squire Hall on the South Campus; satellite office at 1500 Broadway

Contact information:; 829-2732; 645-8999 for the Broadway office

Size: 382 chairs

Students: 483

Specialities: General and restorative dentistry includes oral hygiene, orthodontics, pediatrics, oral and maxillofacial surgery, sedation dentistry, periodontal disease treatment, endodontics, prosthodontics, TMD treatment, dental emergencies.

Patients: Open to anyone of any age

Cost: One-third to half of private practice dentistry.

Zachary Teach looks forward to joining the West Seneca dental practice of his father, Mark, in August but first he has to wrap up his advanced education in general dentistry residency at the UB School of Dental Medicine. He worked in other parts of the three-floor clinical facility earlier in his dental schooling, but now he and other residents focus on emergency and more complex care on the third floor. He spent part of a recent afternoon making a temporary fix to a broken crown for Lucy Ferraro, a dental care coordinator at the school.

“The plus side is you’re going to get a lot of input from different faculty members,” said Teach, 30. “So you’re not going to see one dentist and get one opinion, you’re going to see a student with many dentists and many opinions. You’re getting evaluated, your work’s getting checked.”

Like ECC, the dental clinic here is broken into “suites” that contain several dental chairs and equipment that you would find in most offices. In fact, the dental school is now testing six different variations of furniture and equipment in one section of the clinic as UB prepares to renovate its dental facilities.

The program is seeking 40 to 50 new adolescent patients who need braces. “It is considerably less than what you’d pay elsewhere,” dental school chief marketing officer Ed Morrison said, “and you get access to the individuals who trained many of the orthodontists in the community and around the country.”

“The trade-off is that they’re working with a student, and they may be here longer,” said Dr. Joseph Gambacorta, assistant dean for clinical affairs at the dental school. “On the positive side, everyone of their procedures is critically examined by instructors, at every step. You’re in a building, too, where we offer every service in every discipline of dentistry there is.” That means if you need to see someone about a more complex dental procedure, you may be able to do so by walking down the hall during the same appointment.

As a newer student, Teach used to handle more general work – examinations, cleanings, fillings – and they tended to take about twice as long as in a private dental office. The advanced work done by post-doctorate residents tends to take roughly the same amount of time as in any dental office.

While he worked on Ferraro, Draggett sat in a dental chair nearby testing out her temporary upper denture. She’ll get a permanent one in a few weeks.

“Step-by-step, she’s been very patient,” she said of Dr. Katy Vitelli, 28, of New Paltz, another dental school resident. “She’s guided me through the entire process.”

Other options

The ECC Dental Hygiene Clinic can conduct dental exams, perform X-rays, screenings, fluoride treatment and cleanings, apply sealants and make night guards. All of the work is free. But students and faculty here don’t make a dental diagnosis or tackle more complex dental care. In those cases, faculty members recommend an array of private dentists that patients can find near where they live. For those who are strapped financially, they will recommend reduced-cost services at UB Dental, which is open to anyone, or the following programs that have income-eligibility guidelines:

• Baker Victory Healthcare Center Dental Clinic: 790 Ridge Road; 828-9334

• Catholic Charities of Buffalo Guild of St. Apolonia:* 741 Delaware Ave.; 856-4494

• Central Referral Services: 45 Elm St.; call 211 to access DDS referrals.

• Community Health Center: 34 Benwood Ave.; 986-9199

• Erie County Medical Center Dental Clinic: 562 Grider St.; 898-3189

• Good Neighbors Health Care Medical and Dental Clinic: 175 Jefferson Ave.; 856-2400

• Neighborhood Health Center Mattina: 300 Niagara St.; 875-2904, Ext. 4

• Northwest Buffalo Community Health Care C enter: 155 Lawn Ave.; 875-2904, Ext. 4

* To qualify, patients cannot have dental insurance.