Western University of Health Sciences and We Care Dental are working together to expand dental health services to the developmentally disabled in the Coachella Valley.

The two entities, through an expanded affiliation, have moved We Care Dental’s operations to a new facility at 71-949 Highway 111, Suite 100-B, in Rancho Mirage, California. The new site has 11 dental chairs, nearly tripling the size of We Care Dental’s previous facility.

We Care Dental has provided low-cost dental care to more than 3,500 mostly developmentally disabled patients during the past four-and-a-half years.

“We’re seeing eight to 10 new patients every day,” said Marianne Benson, executive director of Desert Friends of the Developmentally Disabled, which recognized the need for a dental center to serve the needs of the developmentally disabled and people living on fixed incomes. “We Care Dental is the Coachella Valley’s only major dental provider that accepts Denti-Cal, the state insurance coverage for people living on fixed incomes. So by expanding We Care Dental, WesternU is strengthening the safety net for people on fixed incomes who either have Denti-Cal insurance or no insurance at all.”

According to state Department of Health statistics, more than 30,000 developmentally disabled people live in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, Benson said. We Care Dental also sees significant growth potential from veterans and seniors living on fixed incomes, as well as families with Denti-Cal insurance.

Benson and her late husband, Russ, came up with the idea for We Care in 2009 after California legislators made major cuts in the Medicare and Denti-Cal insurance for people 21 and older, including the developmentally disabled.

Having their own developmentally disabled adult son, Kevin, the Bensons knew firsthand how devastating the insurance cuts would be for families. They decided to focus their efforts on establishing a dental center after seeing state statistics that revealed 88 percent of developmentally disabled people did not have adequate dental care.

Benson said the problem of inadequate care was partly due to the insurance cuts, but also reflected the fact that many dentists are uncomfortable treating developmentally disabled patients.

“We felt we could create a dental center that would not only provide specialized care for the disabled that they could not get anywhere else, but provide them with dental care without putting them to sleep unless it was absolutely necessary,” Benson said. “Developmentally disabled patients generally do not need to be put to sleep before receiving their dental treatments. All they really need is compassionate care with a little handholding and comforting so that they know they’ll be OK.”

We Care began its operations on Bob Hope Drive with a single volunteer dentist, Dr. Melvyn Glick, and a handful of part-time dental students. Benson had to use a great deal of her retirement savings to get the center off the ground with the help of Richard Mottler of Rancho Mirage. She also worked with Dr. Glick and other volunteers to organize fundraising events to sustain We Care’s operations in the early years.

Benson and Dr. Glick eventually recruited more dentists, including Dr. Hala Shakir and Dr. Waleed Al Hassan, who immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq. They also established a relationship with WesternU’s College of Dental Medicine in 2011, which provided a steady stream of dental students who worked under the supervision of licensed dentists and instructors.

“The We Care rotation is very popular with the students,” said College of Dental Medicine Dean Steven Friedrichsen, DDS. “It provides them with the opportunity to reinforce their clinical skills while gaining confidence working with patients with disabilities.”

Last year, We Care also established a residency program with dental students from Lutheran Medical Center in New York, who work under the supervision of California-licensed dentists.

“Now we are training a whole new generation of students on how to treat the disabled population with compassionate care,” Benson said, adding that We Care has also been spreading the word about its services through a 30-second public service announcement that was produced by Women in Film, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles.

“These young dentists have a whole new respect for the developmentally disabled population, and they will not be afraid to treat them when they have their own practice,” Benson said. “We’ve helped to replace fear with compassion.”

For more information on We Care Dental, please visit www.dfddnow.org.