Three Ingredients for a Strong Oral Health Safety Net: Leadership, Enthusiasm and Support

Three Ingredients for a Strong Oral Health Safety Net: Leadership, Enthusiasm and Support

L to R: Kelli Ohrenberger, Safety Net Solutions; Heather Pelletier, Executive Director, FRRH; Norma Landry, Dental Program Consultant FRRH; Dr. Rebecca Reeves, FRRH; Dr. Mark Doherty, Safety Net Solutions. [keep as reference for photo]

When I first spoke with Heather Pelletier in the summer of 2012 she had just taken the reigns of Fish River Rural Health, a federally-qualified health center with offices in Eagle Lake and Fort Kent. Fish River provides integrated physical, behavioral and oral health services to over 3000 people, and is the primary safety net provider in the St. John River Valley.  I had called Heather to see if she might be interested in participating in a practice improvement program for Fish River’s oral health services. When she said yes with some gusto I chalked it up to the enthusiasm of a new CEO, but after working with Heather for a couple of years I now know that “enthusiastic” is her middle name.

Within a few months of our conversation, Fish River was participating in Safety Net Solutions’ practice improvement program. Safety Net Solutions is a Massachusetts-based consulting group affiliated with the DentaQuest Institute. They work with safety net oral health providers to support the efficiency and long-term viability of their practices, ensuring people have access to the dental care they need. The Maine Health Access Foundation (MeHAF) has provided funding for 14 practices to participate in the program since 2010, and has supported most of those practices in the implementation of their improvement plans. Safety Net Solutions has had great success nationwide, and as we now know, they’ve had great success right here in Maine.

When I reached out to Heather in 2012, she was in the midst of a search to replace Fish River’s dentist who would soon be leaving the state.  Retaining dentists in rural safety net practices is an ongoing challenge, and Fish River was no exception. Fortunately, shortly before Heather submitted her application to participate in the Safety Net Solutions program, she hired a new dentist who was returning to Maine after practicing in nearby Canada. Dr. Rebecca Reeves couldn’t have been a better fit, and the enthusiasm she brought to the practice was a perfect match with Heather’s.

After developing their practice improvement plan with Safety Net Solutions, Heather and Dr. Reeves identified the need for ongoing support to develop processes and procedures that would make the practice more effective and efficient.  With an implementation grant from MeHAF, Fish River was able to hire Norma Landry as a part- time consultant to address this need, and in a very short period of time the dental practice’s utilization rate went from 50% to 90%. This meant Dr. Reeves was seeing almost double the number of patients – good news for Fish River Rural Health’s bottom line and, most importantly, for the improved oral health of the people they serve. 

Recognizing what a huge accomplishment this was, the folks at Safety Net Solutions nominated Fish River for the 2014 John Rossetti Centers of Excellence award.  At the National Primary Oral Health Conference last month, Heather Pelletier, Dr. Rebecca Reeves and Norma Landry accepted this award from the DentaQuest Institute in recognition of their hard work to ensure access to high-quality oral health care for underserved populations in the Eagle Lake and Fort Kent communities.

With committed leadership, hard work and a modest investment from MeHAF, the folks at Fish River Rural Health have dramatically improved the health center’s oral health program, turning a sluggish practice into a thriving one in less than two years.  Almost double the number of people in the St. John River Valley can now access high-quality oral health services, right in their own community. Fish River’s success proves that a strong oral health safety net is possible in Maine, especially if you have the right ingredients.


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