Smile Partners, a nonprofit that aims to reduce the spread of tooth decay among low-income school-age children, has located its operational headquarters at the Lakeside building (33919 9th Ave. S.) in Federal Way.
Founded in 2004 by two Northwest-based hygienists, the nonprofit served 10,000 children in preschool and elementary school during the 2015-16 school year across King, Kitsap, Snohomish and Mason counties.
“With the addition of 15 new schools in Kitsap and Mason counties, we probably will be serving 12,000 patients this coming school year,” said Imbert Matthee, Smile Partners’ executive director.
Matthee said Smile Partners has experienced huge growth in South King County, which accounts for 55-60 percent of the schools it serves.
“The biggest growth has come from taking on the entire Auburn School District,” Matthee said.
The center of the growth in South King County is Federal Way, which is why Smile Partners has opened its headquarters here, Matthee explained. In Federal Way alone, Smile Partners serves students in 14 elementary schools and four preschools.
The model Smile Partners uses is based on early intervention and prevention.
“We start in preschool,” Matthee said. “The hygienist goes in with a site coordinator. They meet in a common area in the preschool to do the screening. The hygienist looks in the child’s mouth to see how their teeth are coming along. They apply fluoride to the teeth, which strengthens the enamel and prevents cavities.”
Screenings in the 2015-16 school year increased by 20.5 percent compared to the 2014-15 school year.
“In kindergarten we clean their teeth,” Matthee said. “Usually around second grade and from there on we put sealant material on the molar. This ensures that food doesn’t get trapped in there.”
Open houses are also conducted at the schools where oral health presentations are given to parents.
“When we reemphasize that message, it improves the overall strategy to take care of their (children’s) teeth,” Matthee said.
Any teeth cleanings or other services administered are performed in a portable clinic stationed in either the school library or gym, or they’re performed in the mobile Smile Coach. Smile Partners employs 20, including hygienists, site coordinators, community engagement coordinators, and health plan navigators.
Most children, Matthee said, qualify for Medicaid.
“We charge Medicaid, and we get reimbursed for a portion of the costs. The rest we pay off through fundraising,” Matthee explained. “If they don’t have any coverage, we work with the school to make sure everyone is covered. Our goal is to be as inclusive as possible.”
Smile Partners’ revenues are 75-80 percent from Medicaid and some private insurance. The remaining 20-25 percent comes from individual donors and foundations.
Three donations in 2015 totaling $62,000, including $50,000 from the Pacific Hospital Preservation and Development Authority, helped Smile Partners to purchase its mobile clinic. Another $20,000 grant this year from PHPDA helped to hire a new community engagement coordinator and health plan navigator to serve schools in King County.
Finally, Smile Partners hopes to double the amount of preschool children served over the next three years from 1,500 to 3,000 by implementing a $110,000 Murdock Trust grant to help pay for a Pre-K outreach coordinator that will connect with new schools in need of an oral health service provider.
“Our goal is to meet the demand among low-income patients,” Matthee said. “A lot of these patients have a tough time finding providers that accept Medicaid insurance. Our tendency is to look at (serving) schools that don’t have a provider or that don’t have a provider that is as comprehensive (as we are).”
Matthee said the goal of Smile Partners is to not duplicate services.
“(If a student) needs restorative care, we provide a list of providers that accept low-income patients and who accept Medicaid,” Matthee said.
For families who are not familiar with how to sign up for Medicaid, Smile Partners has health plan navigators to help them.
In order to grow more, Matthee said Smile Partners is enlisting help from local businesses who may want to support their cause by sponsoring one of their school clinics. If interested, businesses can call 206-780-6908.