MOORHEAD — Gripping the edges of a dental chair, 25-year-old Steve Schuler groans as two of his decayed teeth are extracted.

"Phew! That was fun," he says sarcastically.

Minutes later in the lobby where he meets his fiancee — who also received emergency dental care — Schuler is still in noticeable pain, but says "it's not as bad as it was."

That relief is what the Red River Valley Dental Access Project provides for hundreds of low-income patients in Fargo-Moorhead.

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There, root canals, abscessed teeth and other dental problems are dealt with despite a patient’s inability to pay. Depending on income level, a flat fee of $30 is all it takes to get dental care. In some cases, no money is required.

The nonprofit clinic is staffed by dozens of volunteer dentists and dental specialists. Their typical Tuesday shift doesn’t end with the last patient at their private practices. Instead, they work without compensation a few more hours to serve those in need.

But this low-to-no-cost option is in jeopardy, and that worries Schuler. He doesn't have insurance and can't afford to pay hundreds of dollars for a dental visit.

"There's really no other option for low-income people here," he said. "I hope they still keep it running."

Alvin Amberson hopes so, too.

The 50-year-old Fargo man has relied on the Dental Access Project for close to a decade. Like Schuler, he doesn't have insurance and says the $30 fee is "well worth getting the relief."

The Dental Access Project's walk-in clinic has been operating weekly out of the Family Healthcare clinic at 715 11th St. N. in Moorhead since 2002.

Dr. Chris Schmaltz, a volunteer with the project, said Family Healthcare notified the volunteer clinic without any explanation of why it had to relocate.

A 90-day notification was sent in September, making Tuesday, Dec. 4, the clinic’s last day of operating at the location it’s called home for 16 years. Schmaltz said a request for an extension wasn't granted.

“A lot of communities would be happy to have this safety net and knowing there are professionals out there willing to volunteer,” Schmaltz said. “The whole drive behind this is doing good for the community. We don't mind sharing our talents.”

'A burden on us'

Dr. Brent Holman, one of the founders of the Dental Access Project, said the volunteer clinic is in limbo while efforts focus on relocating.

He said it's important to continue the clinic that's served an estimated 9,000 patients since its inception. In 2017, 314 patients were served.

“I’m a little bit anxious about Tuesday being the last one and not knowing if we have something worked out or how long it will be till a new location is found,” Holman said. “I’m thankful we had that and hate to lose that by having any break in the program.”

Pat Gulbranson, CEO of Family Healthcare, said tight margins are to blame for the change. "It puts a burden on us with sharing the facility with another organization," he said.

Family Healthcare has a similar mission in providing affordable dental and medical care. Its locations in Moorhead and downtown Fargo offer emergency walk-in dental services. Family Healthcare patients can also receive ongoing preventive dental care, Gulbranson said.

Depending on income and eligibility, a tiered copay system starts at $40, he said.

Gulbranson said Family Healthcare can "no longer afford the partnership" with the Dental Access Project due to safety protocols and increased administrative time. The decision to end the partnership was difficult, he said, and he wishes the volunteer clinic success in finding a new home.

"It's an important mission for the community, and we wish them nothing but the best wherever their new home may be," he said.

'Barriers to care'

Schmaltz said in considering a new location, the Dental Access Project would prefer a site with access to public transportation and enough space to serve large volumes of patients.

On Tuesdays, the project usually has about eight patients and at least two dentists on staff in a rotating schedule.

The project was initially created because local emergency rooms were seeing an increase in patients with dental problems. Holman, former executive director of the North Dakota Dental Association who retired in 2014 after 36 years in the field, said it was a successful partnership with Family Healthcare for 16 years.

While the volunteer dentists realize their clinic won't solve all the problems surrounding access to affordable dental care, Holman said it's "an option for those people who have barriers to care."

"It's not the be-all, end-all," he said. "But it's one of the things you can add to the list that helps."