Why did the state suspend a Norwich dental clinic dedicated to those with disabilities?

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NORWICH — The suspension of a state dental clinic's free services means local families will need to travel an hour or more to get dental care for severely disabled family members.

In March, the Department of Developmental Services dental clinic in Norwich, at Uncas on Thames, stopped seeing patients. Months later, parents, SEIU 1199 union staff and others are concerned about how long it will take to reopen.

“Anything in depth, we’d have to go to the other side of the state,” said Ledyard resident Michelle Drake, whose 22-year-old disabled autistic son, Sky Drake, had used the clinic for six years.

DDS spokesman Kevin Bronson said in an email the department wants better staffing for the center and there isn’t a set time for reopening.

“Staff has ensured that all services booked through this location have been referred to other providers in the interim,” he said. “We look forward to resuming operations in the near future and continue to provide dental care at three other locations statewide.”

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With the Norwich clinic closed, Michelle Drake was told to take her son to a facility in Bridgeport, more than an hour away.

The Norwich clinic suspension contributes to a lack of care for severely disabled people in Eastern Connecticut, outside of the school systems, said Drake, who works for The Arc Eastern Connecticut.

“You have to take time with these patients, because they have so much anxiety,” said East Lyme resident Danielle Green, whose son went to the Norwich clinic.

Green, who is also a dental professional, working 31 years for the Groton Dental Group, and for the Eastern Community Development Corp. for a year, caring for disabled individuals, said some clients need specialists such as those at DDS dental clinics. They offer a range of services different from conventional clinics, from acclimating a client to the practice before treating them, to sedating clients before treatment.

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Green said they'll also check for a wide range of medical conditions and prescription interactions, as these patients can’t communicate it themselves.

Two current employees of the Norwich clinic, dental assistant Julie Michalski and dental hygienist Pamela Collelo, spoke at a gathering of parents, union officials, and State Sen. Cathy Osten last week, during their lunch break. They said they’ve only been doing administrative work since the clinic suspended operations.

Collelo said the center treats 1,000 patients, and 700 of them, some with multiple appointments, have been turned away since March 18.

Collelo said her job lets her practice unsupervised, so there’s no need for the clinic suspension. There was a year and a half the facility was without a dentist, but Collelo was still able to give preventative care to patients during that time.

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“This is the first time, other than COVID, that we’ve closed,” Collelo said.

Sky Drake said he wouldn't be afraid to go to a new dentist office, but he prefers seeing Collelo.

"I like Pam better," he said.

As for Michelle Drake, she’s still frustrated.

“I don’t think DDS managed this correctly,” she said, adding many families learned about the suspension through a letter in April. “If they were going to close it down, they should’ve sat down with the community services, and had a conversation with their directors or their heads and said ‘hey, we’re going to be closing this; can you handle our individuals.”

Osten said UCONN Health, which is contracted with the department, isn’t able to send a dentist, so they’ll plan to hire one to directly work for the Norwich facility.

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“That could take anywhere from three to six months, because of the human resources issue at the state level, but I’ve seen positions take more than a year in time,” Osten said.

Osten was also told there was a dentist under contract that didn’t want to return to the facility.

For the short term, Collelo said the facility should be reopened, and the dentist role can be filled in part-time capacities, as local dentists, including Green, have volunteered. For the long-term, the clinic should hire a dentist, a clinical supervisor, and another dental assistant.

Collelo, who also has a severely disabled child of her own, said many people are drawn to working for disabled people based on experiences in their personal life.

“When you have that connection, and you live every day, providing a service for a loved one, it becomes an inherent ability to serve and treat the people that we do,” she said. “Some people have it anyway, but it’s not something that can be taught.”

This article originally appeared on The Bulletin: Norwich DDS dental clinic suspends services. Caregivers are concerned.