A not insignificant part of my job is spent driving around the Central Valley and looking for new developments. New restaurants. New shops. New construction.
Recently, a not insignificant number of those new developments have included a dentist in the mix. So much so that with each new practice I would exclaim, “Really, another one?” And while a new dental office may not seem as sexy as say a big new restaurant chain or a popular national retailer, it’s still a significant enough trend to turn my head. Also, have you ever kissed anyone with bad teeth? Not sexy.
Since last summer at least half a dozen new dental offices have either opened or are planning to open in Modesto. And, just as interesting, many of these dental offices are popping up in high-profile retail areas instead of traditional medical office complexes.
They include Aspen Dental, which opened on Sisk Road across from Target this June, Village One Dental, which reopened on Floyd Avenue in the Raley’s shopping center this March, and Modesto Smiles Dentistry, which opened on Pelandale Road across from Save Mart and opened a year ago June.
New dental practices are also under construction in the upcoming The Marketplace shopping center at Sylvan Avenue and Oakdale Road, a new complex on the former Christmas tree lot at the corner of Oakdale Road and Peppermint Drive, and the old Chevy’s Mexican restaurant building on Standiford Avenue.
So why are dentists flocking to Modesto?
A stronger economy certainly hasn’t hurt, coupled with lower unemployment. But for dentists coming into the area, the biggest factors appear to be growth and need. They see more people are moving to the region, many seeking relief from the higher home prices in the Bay Area and other regions. Plus historically the city has had fewer dentists per person than both the state and national averages.
In Modesto, there’s one dentist for every 1,640 residents, according to the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency 2018 Oral Health Needs Assessment. Meanwhile the California and national averages are one dentist for every 1,210 and 1,280 people, respectively.
In short, Modesto has been under-served, and the new dentists are coming into what they believe is an expanding patient base.
“As the Central Valley’s population grows, so does the need for health care services, including dental care,” said Alicia Malaby, director of communications for the California Dental Association.
Malaby said the new Modesto practices appear to be a combination of privately owned dental offices and dental service organizations, which are both individually and corporate-owned. Aspen Dental, the largest branded dental practices in the United States with 756 offices in 41 states across the country, opened its first California location in Modesto in late June.
Abhinav Shukla, Aspen Dental chief operating officer, said when looking into what areas of California to go into, Modesto stood out because of its high number of “dental delayers,” or people who have not gone to the dentist in three or more years. He said their researched showed half of the population from Modesto to Sacramento have not been to the dentist recently.
“Modesto is interesting to us. It’s well-populated with dental services, but affordable dental care services continues to be a challenge in the area,” he said. “At Aspen we believe in breaking down barriers to care.”
So, their office offers a free dental exam and X-rays to patients, even those without any insurance plan.
The study by the HSA’s Oral Health Needs Assessment study found that over 25 percent of its respondents had not been to the dentist in more than a year, and a small proportion of individuals reported they had never been to the dentist. Instead those without insurance tend to use local emergency rooms as makeshift dental offices.
The county’s needs assessment study showed Stanislaus County has a much higher rate of individuals using emergency rooms to access dental care for non-traumatic injuries than the state average. In the county there were 855.1 per 100,000 individuals, compared to the state’s 353.3 visits per 100,000 people who went to the ER for dental care.
One of the biggest sticking blocks appears to be acceptance of Medi-Cal Dental, also known as Denti-Cal, the state’s health care program for low-income residents. In the county, 45.8 percent of the population is eligible for Medi-Cal. But of the 442 dental providers in the county, only 42 offices accept Medi-Cal Dental. According to the county’s oral health assessment study, only 10 of those 42 practices were accepting new patients.
None of the new dental offices coming into the city accept Denti-Cal, including those which have recently opened including Aspen Dental, Village One Dental and Modesto Smiles Dentistry.
At Village One Dental — an existing practice that closed in 2018 and then was reopened by a new doctor earlier this year — office manager Harprit Pannu said they do not accept Denti-Dental in Modesto. Practice owner Dr. Sumeet Pannu has also had an office in Merced which does accept the state’s insurance, but said the demographics are different there.
“One of the main reasons dentists in the area don’t take Medi-Cal is because of the reimbursements, which are extremely low,” he said.
Recently, the state has sought to address the low reimbursement rates by increasing provider incentives — largely in thanks to cash injections from increased taxes on tobaccos products through Proposition 56 (which also funded the county’s oral health needs assessment).
The state’s Dental Transformation Initiative, designed to help low-income children enrolled in Medi-Cal Dental, expanded a pilot program to Stanislaus County at the start of the year and increased some of the reimbursement rates.
But, when talking to the new dental practices in the area, their focus was more on attracting people with existing private insurance who may not go to the dentist often. That’s part of the strategy behind relocating to high-traffic areas like shopping centers and strip malls, said Alfonso Maurno, regional manager for Cheema Dental Corporation, which is renovating the old Chevy’s building.
The company has 10 existing offices in the valley and Bay Area. After a construction delay due to crews working in wildfire recovery areas, Maurno said the practice is on track to open by the end of the year. While their upcoming Modesto site is not in large retail shopping complex — it sits in front of a Walgreens on the corner of Standiford Avenue and Carver Road — he said a high-profile spot is important to dental offices.
“Everyone knows the old Chevy’s building in Modesto,” he said. “We are looking for places that have a family dynamic. We looks for retail areas like that for visibility and foot traffic.”