Metro dentists caring for kids and adults with special needs are far and few between

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SHAWNEE, Kan. -- Even if you don't fear the dentist, you can imagine why a lot of people do.

Now, imagine you're a person with special needs who might not understand why someone wants to stick tools in your mouth.

Groups focused on this problem say they get calls from people who have been searching for special care for years.

"I feel there should be one in every town, and there's really not," John Crader said.

Crader's talking about dentists who work with children and adults with special needs. He and his daughter, Madison Wassinger, drive an hour to see one who does, like Dr. Seth Cohen at Crown Town Dental in Shawnee.

"It's always a chore to drive up here," Crader said, "but the inside is worth it. "

"The lack of dental care for special needs patients, in general, is very little in the state of Kansas," Cohen said.

Cohen sees patients who live as far away as Garden City, Missouri. He said his dental school training prepared him.

"Our goal is to make our students, hygiene students and dental students comfortable treating these folks. And a little hands-on, several days of hands-on care, really breaks the ice for them, where they’re not anxious about it and they feel comfortable providing that care," said Dr. Tom Vopat, clinical professor at the UMKC School of Dentistry.

"They're just so relieved," Cohen said, "so happy and so relieved to have finally found a home to take care of whatever their needs are."

Cohen's office provides sedation dentistry for patients with anxiety or autism who may have concerns about the sights suction and sounds

"Obviously the hope is that down the road they get used to coming to the dental office and that maybe we can see them with just the laughing gas or nothing at all, just for a regular cleaning," Cohen said.

Tiffany Walter said rolling into the dentists office in her wheelchair wasn't always this easy. Cohen made adjustments to see Walter while she stays in her chair.

"It means everything," Walter said. "I'm able to be independent."

"There's so many reasons it's really, really hard for people to get the care," said Tanya Dorf Brunner, executive director of Oral Health Kansas.

They provide pamphlets, classes and resources to people statewide.

"If that one person found us, I can't even think of how many that didn't find us," Dorf Brunner said. "And it just kind of breaks my heart to know that there's a lot of people just trying to struggle to navigate."

The biggest challenges they see are finding dentists who provide the right kind of care, physical access to offices and coverage for services.

"We were successful this year in getting a rate increase passed in the legislature," Dorf Brunner said. "So there's going to be about a 6% rate increase in several different rates, which is fantastic because it hadn't happened in 18 years, but the dental provider in medicaid is still very small."

This state advocacy and education organization is working with the American Dental Association to improve the quality of dental care through a new project that could come to Kansas City in 2020 if their grant is approved.

"We think we could make a big dent in the challenges that pretty much every family is probably facing," Dorf Brunner said.

Dorf Brunner said they would be working in Wyandotte, Johnson and Allen counties talking with dentists trying to make a difference and families who feel the barriers.

"We're here just trying to better the community and take good care of people," Cohen said.

"The importance is your child gets the tooth care they need," Crader said.

Oral Health Kansas also provides resources for adaptive aids and diagrams to help people with special needs. Visit their website for more information.

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