Dental health is often overlooked as an important component of comprehensive health care. Most people must purchase dental coverage in addition to health insurance, and Medicaid, the federal health-care insurance for the disabled and low-income, does not provide dental coverage for adults. Dental health is arguably less accessible than other forms of health care but no less important in terms of overall health.

According to the McLennan County Public Health District’s latest Community Needs Assessment, slightly less than half of respondents reported having a dental exam or cleaning in the past year. For those with an annual household income between $10,000 and $25,000, 83 percent reported not seeing a dentist, yet 40 percent were told by a health professional that they have a dental problem.

Recent studies reveal that poor oral health is linked to systemic illnesses such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and respiratory disease. Poor dental hygiene, missing teeth and other complications are also significant barriers to employment and involvement in other life activities. On the other hand, proper dental health care has been shown to reduce recidivism rates of people requiring urgent care at hospitals and doctors’ offices. The need for dental health care is clear and if our community is serious about improving overall health outcomes, dental care must be an area of focus.

Dental health care can be difficult for anyone to access, but that is especially true for individuals with developmental disabilities or those who are suffering from behavioral health problems. Co-occurring physical disabilities, behavioral challenges or emotional stresses related to mental illness can result in lack of access to the very limited indigent care that exists. The barriers to accessing dental care for patients with mental health needs are tremendous and there are few options to help folks overcome the multiple obstacles.

Family Health Center is one of the only dental-health providers for uninsured, low-income patients in our community and regularly works with Heart of Texas Region MHMR to provide dental services ranging from simple cleanings to complex extractions for patients with disabilities. However, even with programs like Family Health Center’s, the need for adult dental health care far exceeds our community’s current capacity and resources, so many folks continue to go without care — especially those who also have behavioral health needs or developmental disabilities.

Providing dental health resources to help bridge the gap for patients with behavioral health needs or developmental disabilities is one of the reasons why Dr. George Jurek, retired dentist and local philanthropist, is a true health-care hero. Dr. Jurek began his dental practice in Waco decades ago before working for the Texas Department of State Health Services. He later transitioned to the state TDMHMR office where he served as special assistant to the commissioner and oversaw eight hospitals and 13 schools for people with developmental disabilities.

Dr. Jurek recalls many patients who had a terrible fear of going to the dentist because their only experiences involved severe dental issues that caused a tremendous amount of pain and could have been prevented with basic dental health care. He researched and studied the dental health needs of all patients in the hospitals and schools entrusted to his care. He soon realized that patients who were also dealing with mental illness or developmental disabilities had a much higher rate of tooth decay, tooth loss and severe dental issues. Dr. Jurek published his findings in several scholarly journals in both dental health and mental health fields.

Dr. Jurek’s broad dental experience and his extensive post-doctoral education provided him with a unique perspective about the relationship between dental and mental health and the need for greater access to dental health care for patients with mental illness or developmental disabilities. To better equip dentists, hygienists and dental assistants to provide proper, compassionate care to patients with mental-health needs, Dr. Jurek developed a curriculum titled “Me Too.” The program was taught by Baylor College of Dentistry faculty hand-selected by Dr. Jurek and received federal funding for implementation across Texas. Dr. Jurek’s vision was to replace fragmented dental care with an inclusive model that encompassed dentistry as part of primary care for patients with behavioral health needs or developmental disabilities.

To further realize his vision, Dr. Jurek generously established the Dr. George Jurek Dental Services Fund at Waco Foundation that provides funding for patients with behavioral health needs or developmental disabilities to access dental health care. Waco Foundation, in turn, has partnered with MHMR and Family Health Center to bring Dr. Jurek’s vision to reality. MHMR clients who need dental work will be screened by local MHMR staff for their specific dental-health needs, and Family Health Center will provide the actual services at a reduced cost. The Dr. George Jurek Dental Services Fund at Waco Foundation will reimburse the cost of services. Dr. Jurek has made a planned gift provision for the fund and will leave a portion of his estate to endow the Dr. George Jurek Dental Services Fund to provide for future need in perpetuity.

Dr. Jurek’s compassionate nature drives his desire to connect MHMR clients with important dental care that contributes to their overall health. He has paved the way for philanthropy and local organizations to partner together to address the growing dental-health needs in our community. On behalf of Family Health Center and MHMR, we appreciate Dr. Jurek’s generosity and hope his act of kindness inspires others to consider the importance of providing dental care to those who need it most.

Barbara Tate, MS, MBA, has worked for the Heart of Texas Region MHMR since 1976 and has served as the executive director for the organization since 2005. She has served numerous boards and community organizations including the McLennan County Homeless Coalition, the ARC of McLennan County and numerous state organizations focused on mental health.

Roland A. Goertz, MD, MBA, is the CEO of the Heart of Texas Community Health Center, Inc. In Dr. Goertz’s 35-year medical career, he has been a physician in rural private practice, a family medicine residency program director, chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and the 2010–2011 national president of the 110,000 member American Academy of Family Physicians.