F. Castro / SFVS

UCLA student Kimberlin Low and Dr. William Chiueh attend to a patient at San Fernando Community Health Center Dental Clinic.

After his parents died in 2001, Ronnie Vaiz says he didn’t care about anything anymore — not even his teeth.

Already with a mouth full of problems, the condition of his teeth only worsened with the passing of each year. He ended up losing nearly all of them.

“I had no teeth, maybe one or two” says the 65-year-old San Fernando resident.

Going to a dentist just wasn’t within his reach.

 “I couldn’t pay for it,” he said. Vaiz didn’t have dental insurance and even if he did, it was still too expensive.

When he attempted to go to a dentist, Vaiz said they charged him $150 just for a check up and X-rays. Then, as dental offices typically do, they present patients with a cost estimate. Vaiz was told that it would cost “a couple thousand dollars” to get dentures to replace his missing teeth. “I said forget it. I couldn’t afford that.”

Having no front teeth presented several problems for Vaiz.

“It was very hard to eat. I did have my back molars, more or less; (all I ate) was soft food,” he remembers.

He also had a little bit of trouble pronouncing some words and when he spoke, he took on the habit of covering his mouth with his hand or not opening his mouth fully.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that he applied for and received Medi-Cal, and when its dental counterpart, Denti-Cal, also kicked in, Vaiz was able to receive the dental treatment he sorely needed.

Two years ago, he was referred to San Fernando Community Health Center, which has a dental clinic located in the City of San Fernando.

First, dentists there removed the broken, worn-down teeth and molars Vaiz still had before fitting him with upper and lower dentures right before last Thanksgiving.

“Now I can bite down. It’s a big difference,” Vaiz said of his new teeth.

The change has been dramatic for him and his family.

“It was funny for my grandkids. They told me ‘you got teeth grandpa,’” he says

Denti-Cal covered all of his dental work.

Dental Clinic Offers Sliding Scale Services

In addition to dental care covered by Denti-Cal, the clinic also takes those with private insurance and also offers a sliding scale, where costs are based on the patient’s income.

But unlike private dental clinics that charge for every procedure, the patients at San Fernando Community Health Center pay a fixed price,“no matter whether you get a crown or a filling,” explains Dr. William Chiueh, dental director.

He adds that those costs can be “a third less or more” on average instead of what those procedures could cost at a private practice.

The dental clinic has existed for six years and features five dentists, along with a group of rotating UCLA dental students who take care of a growing number of patients — of whom the majority  are low-income.

One of those working there is 24-year-old Kimberlin Low, a fourth-year dental student preparing to graduate.

“We get sent out to go to community clinics to enhance our learning, so we can treat a different kind of population than what we see at UCLA,” Low said. She notes that community dental clinics are often in areas with populations of more need and often she sees more complex cases because these patients — for lack of funds — often put aside going to the dentist.

“Sometimes, they’ve neglected it for a long time. We’re able not to  judge, but meet them  where they are [with the state of their teeth] with caring and understanding,” Low said. “We’re not just taking care of rich people, but everyone.

“Dentistry should be available to everyone.”

Clinic Provides Most Services

The dental care provided by students includes exams, deep cleanings, fillings, crowns for both adults and children, and is supervised by a licensed dentist at the clinic. It can be an ideal situation for patients and for dental students.

The San Fernando clinic can also handle more complicated cases and patients are sometimes referred by other clinics that only offer basic care.

“We do procedures that other clinics won’t do. These people have no other place to get their work done. We do the tough work,” Jeff Buger, the clinic’s chief financial officer.

Chiueh adds that about the only procedures they don’t perform are molar root canals and “very complicated extractions.” Those cases are referred to specialists at UCLA.

He said they try to do as much as possible in-house, and often work with patients who need a lot of different procedures after having avoided the dentist for years.

“You can’t just do a portion of the work. We try to provide as much care as we can. Nobody likes to go to different places to get work done,” he adds.

He describes the work as “gratifying.”

 “We’re doing something to really help people that really need it,” Chiueh said. “It makes them self-confident (when they get their teeth fixed). It’s a really good feeling when they get their work done.”

Vaiz can attest to that. He no longer hides his mouth, no longer mispronounces words or has trouble eating.

“When I bite down, it’s a big difference,” he says. “Before I would just grin.”

 Now he smiles.