SKOWHEGAN — There’s a new dentist in town, and he is one of only a handful of dentists in central Maine who will accept children eligible under MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid.

John Douglas Huntley, a general dentist in Greenville, opened a dental practice for children and adolescents in the former Catholic school next to the Notre Dame de Lourdes Roman Catholic Church on Water Street in Skowhegan.

“We accept MaineCare dental insurance for children, and that would distinguish us from the other dental clinics in Skowhegan,” Huntley said in a recent interview at the school, which been closed to daily classes since 1957.

Huntley, 58, who lives in Shirley, a town in Piscataquis County, said he is filling a need for important dental preventive work for young people, a health option that is sure to affect them for the rest of their lives. He serves income-eligible families with children in Greenville, also in Piscataquis County, and at the Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston.

Huntley said he moved to Maine from New Jersey in 2003. He said he opened his practice in Skowhegan in November because he saw the area as being underserved for youth dental services under MaineCare, a federal- and state-funded program that pays the medical expenses of people who are unable to pay some or all of their own medical expenses.

Citing statistics from a 2013 Medical Care Development public health study commissioned by the Legislature in 2011, Huntley said there is a need for dental services in rural Maine because many people go without regular dental care. The report found that two-thirds of Mainers live in rural areas, but only 13.5 percent of dentists practice in those areas. Cuts in government-funded dental care have reduced support for prevention programs and sliding-scale subsidies for low-income Mainers, the report found.

According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, 55 percent of children covered by MaineCare aren’t getting regular dental care.

“I do what I am doing because there is a screaming need for it to be done,” Huntley said. “The patients need it and the system doesn’t support it, much less pay for it in a meaningful way. So even though there isn’t much money in it, there are too many reasons not to do it.”

Dr. Kristie Lake Harriman, a dentist who works at the Community Development Center in Waterville and is chairwoman of the Council on Government Relations for the Maine Dental Association, said it is uncommon for a private dentist to devote part of his practice to children covered by MaineCare, because of the low reimbursement rates.

She said she was 5 years old in 1987, the last time practitioners received an increase in reimbursements for MaineCare dental services. Harriman said it is good news that a private dentist such as Huntley is accepting children covered by MaineCare.

“A lot of dental offices accept MaineCare-eligible children, but a lot of dental offices don’t have the capacity to do that widespread,” she said. “A lot of dentists will cap it off because of the poor reimbursement rates for MaineCare.”

Huntley said Skowhegan is the county seat of Somerset County, so it is the obvious choice for a dental practice that helps low-income people.

“Skowhegan is the place because it’s a crossroads,” Huntley said. “Skowhegan is the meeting place in this area.”

There are similar services, with practitioners accepting MaineCare patients, in Bingham, in Somerset County, at the Bingham Area Health Center. It is one of 11 federally qualified health centers administered by HealthReach Community Health Centers. The center serves adults and children and accepts both commercial insurance and MaineCare. In addition, an affordable care program is offered for uninsured residents who meet income guidelines.

There are two such dental clinics in neighboring Franklin County, in Farmington and Strong; and three more in Augusta and Waterville, in Kennebec County. There are no such services currently in Waldo County, according to the oral health program at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention website.

MaineCare, administered through the Department of Health & Human Services, provides dental benefits to individuals whose incomes meet federal poverty guidelines. Eligible children and young adults under 21 are able to get the preventive and regular care they need to facilitate normal growth and development. Eligibility is based on family income.

In order to qualify for the program, a person must be a resident of Maine, a U.S. national, a citizen, a permanent resident or a legal immigrant in need of health care or insurance assistance and whose financial situation would be characterized as low-income or very low-income, according to the website benefits.gov, where residents can go to find eligibility requirements.

“I’m a general dentist, but we definitely cater to the kids,” Huntley said, applying nitrous oxide to a young patient prior to cavity work. “When they’re 6 years old, they get permanent teeth; and if they get on the wrong track with the permanent teeth coming in, then they’re going to be living with it for the rest of their lives. They’ll never catch up.”

Harriman said community clinics and pediatric dentists will accept children with MaineCare, but when it comes to “just opening your doors and accepting universally everybody, that’s pretty rare. That’s awesome. It’s difficult to make ends meet.”

The Center at 93 Main St. in Waterville accepts MaineCare payments and offers a sliding fee schedule for people who are uninsured.

Huntley said he has read that 40 percent of children born in the United States are covered by Medicaid or MaineCare.

“Insofar as other patients with insurance, we have a different fee schedule for those,” he said. “In between those with private insurance and with state insurance, you have people with no insurance because of their income.”

Huntley said eligibility for MaineCare services in Maine’s poorer counties, including Somerset, Piscataquis and Washington counties, is greater than in most of the counties in southern Maine.

He said he is renting space in the former Catholic school, built in 1901, in a collaboration with the church, which has agreed to provide the location at reduced rates. The offices have a grand view of the Kennebec River gorge and the snowy banks of the town’s walking trail on the south side of Skowhegan.

Katie Larabee, of Greenville, who has been Huntley’s dental assistant for 10 years, said word of the new dentist in Skowhegan has gotten around as patients visit, are pleased with the services and the MaineCare coverage, and tell their friends.

Mary Johnson, of Skowhegan, said she has been taking her three sons, ages 4, 5 and 7, to see Dr. Huntley since she heard he was open in Skowhegan.

“My kids had a dentist appointment scheduled up in Bingham, and my neighbor next door said there’s a dentist right here in Skowhegan. You can bring the kids and get them examined,” Johnson said. “I said that would be more convenient than to try to get a ride for all of them up to Bingham. We live right on Madison Avenue, so for our first appointment, we were able to walk over.”

Johnson said Huntley is really good talking to the children, settling them down and seeing that they are comfortable in the dentist chair with an overhead television and head phones, which on a recent visit was showing a Garfield the cat cartoon movie.

“It’s pretty quick about getting in, too, getting an appointment scheduled,” Johnson said. “It’s very convenient having something right in town.”

Huntley said he also had assistance setting up his practice from the son of a retired Skowhegan dentist, Gerald Vermette. The younger Vermette, who is a carpenter, did all the work on the cabinets and finishing the walls to make it a real dentist’s office. Huntley currently has two patient chairs with all the necessary equipment and hopes to install a third in the coming months.

Huntley stressed that he will be taking patients only from the Skowhegan, Fairfield and Waterville areas. The office will be open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the last two weeks of every month.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

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Twitter:@Doug_Harlow