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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, November 14, 2004

Money woes threaten clinic for needy

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

WAILUKU, Maui — Wendie Miller Schwab is a former Los Angeles dentist who easily could have set up a lucrative private practice after moving to Maui 16 years ago.

Oral Health Institute of the Pacific founder Wendie Miller Schwab says her office has treated more than 1,000 people since February.

Timothy Hurley • The Honolulu Advertiser

Instead, she ended up devoting herself to the needy and others with the least access to dental services, as well as working to improve the overall dental health of the community.

Now, her Oral Health Institute of the Pacific is in danger of closing seven months after it was launched, because of a critical shortfall of Medicaid reimbursements and government grants.

"That would be terrible," said patient Bobbi Chapman of Kahului during a visit to the Wailuku private practice on Friday. "She has such a good heart, and her tenderness shows her inner being, her intellect. She's good for the children. We need people like that."

Schwab, a mother of two, was burned out from dentistry when she moved to Maui with her husband, Dr. Mark Schwab, a cardiologist, in 1988. She decided to help with his Wailuku practice, and few people knew she was a dentist.

But in 1999, after her children had grown, she was hired by the Catholic Church Office for Social Ministry to launch its mobile dental van program, which offers dental clinics to low-income, uninsured and underinsured people across the Valley Isle. "I saw a tremendous need out there," she said. "The backlog of necessary dental treatment on Maui was overwhelming."

It is estimated there are nearly 15,000 Medicaid recipients on Maui, but the problem is, only a handful of dentists accept them as patients.

In 2000, Schwab became the founding chair of the state's Maui County Dental Health Alliance, which, among other things, advocates for greater access to prevention and treatment services, and from 2001 to 2003 she worked with Hui No Ke Ola Pono (Maui's Native Hawaiian Health Care System) to improve the dental health of the island's Native Hawaiian population.

In February, Schwab decided to open her own practice, focusing on the most difficult cases, including the elderly, the blind, the disabled and others with special needs.

Since then, her office has seen more than 1,000 patients ranging in age from 1 to 90. Ninety-five percent of them have been MedQuest and Medicaid recipients, and most have not had access to dental services for years.

Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang said Schwab's clinic plays an essential role in the community, and it would be a blow to the island's health if her practice were lost.

Pang said he's taking her cause to the Maui County Council, to Mayor Alan Arakawa and to the public. He said the clinic needs $50,000 immediately or its office will be closed by the end of the month. "The public health community knows her value, and a lot of people are upset about this," he said.

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.