Van provides dental care for farmworkers

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
July 19, 2008

GUILFORD — Amid the usual comings and goings of customers at Bishop’s Orchards Friday morning, Susana Portillo settled into a dental chair inside a large van outside the market where she works packing fruit.

It was the third time Portillo, who is originally from Mexico and has been working year-round at Bishop’s for about four years, had visited the Hospital of Saint Raphael Dental Van. The van was at Bishop’s parking lot this week to offer services for the farm’s migrant and seasonal workers, who otherwise might not be able to get dental care.

“I like it because I don’t have a personal dentist,” said Portillo, 24, who lives in East Haven. “It’s important because we don’t have (inexpensive dental care) in Mexico, but here we have the opportunity.”

The mobile dental unit provides preventative services for the farm workers, van manager Sharon McCreven said, including cleanings, exams and X-rays. If there is a more serious problem, staffers will refer the patient to another dentist or oral surgeon.

“For a lot of them, this is the only dental care that they get all year long,” McCreven said as she cleaned Portillo’s teeth.

Dentists recommend that people get a teeth cleaning every six months. For many, making those visits is an unpleasant chore. But the high price of dental care and lack of health coverage can put seeing the dentist out of reach for some people.

During the school year, the St. Raphael’s van visits local schools to offer care for children, and in the summer it stops at certain sites in New Haven a few days a week for adults to visit. For those services, the van accepts the state HUSKY insurance plan and offers a sliding scale for fees.

The partnership with Bishop’s Orchards started six years ago as another way to use the van during the summer, dental care coordinator Elaine Spinato said. For the migrant workers, mostly from foreign countries, the care is free.

Jonathan Bishop, of Bishop’s Orchards, said that the farm employs about 18 migrant and seasonal workers each year. Right now, he said, with peach season starting, the work force is at its maximum.

Almost all of the workers visit the dental van on a voluntary basis, Bishop added.

“We have health coverage for our full-time workers who qualify, but generally we haven’t covered seasonal workers just because they’re here on a seasonal basis in the summertime and a worker might be here one year and not the next,” Bishop said. “I think a lot of people are kind of living with (dental) conditions. It can only make their life a lot more pleasant by having that taken care of.”

Spinato said that the mobile dental office visits Bishop’s about three times a season. Some of the workers return year after year, but some new employees may have never visited a dentist in their lives.

“They’re just very pleasant and thankful we’re doing something for them, so it’s a good feeling right around,” she said. “Your oral heath can affect your whole body. … It affects all aspects of your health — most people don’t know that.”

Portillo, one of the patients Friday, said that her co-workers appreciate the service.

“It’s good to work on the farm because we have this opportunity,” she said. “Other places don’t have this.”

For more information on the Saint Raphael Dental Van, call 867-5437.

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