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Filling a Vital Need

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A trip to the dentist once seemed like a luxury to Gumercindo Castro. Treating a painful nerve infection boiled down to a simple matter of economics for the unemployed machinist: Visit the dentist or pay the rent.

But now, Castro is getting the treatment he so desperately needs at the Venice Dental Center, a bustling facility on Lincoln Boulevard that serves thousands of impoverished families, homeless people and others who can’t afford private care.

The clinic may appear like any other dentist’s office--with its reclining chairs, high-pitched drills and sweet fluoride smell--but it offers services to its mostly Latino patients at a fraction of the cost.

A simple teeth cleaning for an adult runs as little as $30 at the nonprofit facility, a satellite of the UCLA School of Dentistry.

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Patients such as Castro say the prices can’t be beat. He recalls a private dentist quoting him a price of $450 to done a single root canal on his tender tooth. By comparison, the same procedure performed at the Venice Dental Center costs as little as $225.

And as far as the dental care goes, Castro and others call it top notch--from basic checkups to crowns and bridges.

“I have confidence in the doctors here,” said Castro, 43, a Culver City resident. “I have the guarantee of good service behind me here.”

The dental center’s cubicles are staffed by students and postgraduate residents from the UCLA dental school, and by dental hygiene students from West Los Angeles College and Cerritos College.

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Together, the corps provides a full complement of services. On a recent morning, one patient sat quietly while a dental student filled a cavity. At another cubicle a few feet away, a woman had her teeth cleaned. Another man was being fitted for steel implants that will one day hold dentures in place. And Castro arrived for an emergency visit to treat his painful nerve infection.

The center’s director, Mireya Ortega, says the ultimate goal is to teach patients about the importance of diligent dental care. The center is preparing to launch a prenatal program, teaching expectant mothers how to care for their infants’ teeth and encouraging new parents to bring their babies for checkups as early as 6 months of age, when they begin to teethe.

“You can’t have good health care without good oral health,” said Ortega, a graduate of the UCLA dental school.

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Officials at the dental clinic--known formally as the Wilson-Jennings-Bloomfield UCLA Venice Dental Center--have been preaching the gospel of good oral hygiene since the facility opened 28 years ago in an office building across the street from its present location on Lincoln Boulevard.

The dental center serves anyone who walks through the door, but the services are directed to the poor. Prices are calculated on a sliding scale, while the cost for some patients is subsidized by agencies that refer patients, such as the Venice Family Clinic.

The center also relies on subsidies from private organizations to help defray costs, and it accepts Denti-Cal, the equivalent of Medi-Cal.

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The prices and the dental center’s reputation have helped attract a loyal following. Last year, 2,200 patients made 8,900 visits to the center. And those numbers are expected to grow as the center adds six new dentist chairs to its existing collection of 14 by the end of the year.

Most of the patients come from the surrounding area but the dental center also has attracted patients from beyond the Westside.

“I give thanks to God that I found this clinic,” said Marco Resendiz, a Monterey Park resident who learned about the clinic from his niece, a graduate of UCLA’s nursing school.

Resendiz says a private dentist quoted a price of $1,500 to pull his rotting teeth and replace them with dentures. The Venice Dental Center is charging only the cost of materials--$450--because Resendiz’s case is the first of its kind for the staff there.

Resendiz had all of his bottom teeth pulled last December and he is now having the same done to most of his top teeth. The process can be painful, but Resendiz says he’s in good hands.

“The doctors here are very concerned over my health,” he said. “I’m glad that my niece recommended that I come here.”

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The Beat Today’s focus is on the Venice Dental Center, which provides low-cost dental care for thousands of poor patients. Its dentists perform a range of services, from simple teeth cleanings to crowns and dentures. For more information, call (310) 392-8471.

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