Having grown up on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in rural Montana, Crystal Spring understands firsthand how residents across the state struggle to receive basic dental care.
“I would have to drive 70 miles to North Dakota to go to the dentist office,” says Spring, a registered dental hygienist. “For most people, the closest pediatric dental office was 300 miles in Billings.”
Spring co-founded the nonprofit Smiles Across Montana (SAM) in 2018 to address those disparities. For four years, SAM has partnered with the Caring Foundation of Montana and its Care Van® program to travel to schools, nursing homes, homeless shelters and other areas to provide preventive and diagnostic oral health services and dental education to vulnerable populations.
The Caring Foundation of Montana and its Care Van program, sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana, have provided SAM access to the Care Vans to use as mobile exam rooms, haul bulky dental equipment and travel across the state to assist during visits. The vans have helped SAM reach some of Montana’s most rural and underserved areas.
With the recent addition of a second large van to its fleet, the Care Van program can assist SAM in providing dental care, while the other large vehicle can continue offering health screenings and help vaccinate more Montanans against COVID-19.
“Right now, there are 13 counties that we’ve yet to reach and work in,” says Care Van Program Coordinator Nate Wellington. “Now we have the new van and resources to reach all 56 counties.”
The new vehicle has already helped the program establish relationships in Carter County, the seventh least-populated county in the state. Kamille Kirchberg, administrator for the program, expects that trend to continue.
“With a single large Care Van, we typically serve more than 6,000 people and cover 25,000 miles each year,” she says. “With the second van, we’re expecting to almost double that at the very least.”
Launched in 2014, the Care Van program has worked with community partners like SAM and traveled more than 105,000 miles and helped provide access to 30,000-plus vaccines, health screenings, preventive services and educational materials to people across the state. It also has tried to address gaps in dental care documented by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
In 2019, Montana had 79% of counties designated as dental health professional shortage areas. And 62% of children in the state experienced dental decay by the time they reached third grade in 2017.
“We’re working together to integrate medical and dental care and exploring innovative ways to address those needs for the community,” Spring says. “The Care Van Program has been really great about supporting that. They have been at so many of our events and we are hoping to use the new van more in the future.”