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In the war against childhood tooth decay, Southern Maryland has a new battlefield.

The Bel Alton Regional Dental Center held an open house Monday morning at the Bel Alton Community Development Center.

“Children will enjoy their visit,” said U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who spoke at the open house.

Cardin credited former Charles County commissioners’ President Wayne Cooper for paying “attention to the needs of children” by getting the center opened and reminded the audience of the story of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver.

“He lost his life in one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest nations in the world,” Cardin said.

Deamonte was a resident of Prince George’s County when his mother was unable to pay $80 for him to receive dental treatment. He died in March 2007 after the infection of a tooth spread to his brain, requiring surgery that cost $250,000 and came too late.

Cardin went on to tell the audience that 64 percent of underserved children qualify for dental services through Medicaid, but that leaves 36 percent who do not qualify.

“We can do better than that,” Cardin said. “We’ve got to do better than that.”

State Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) and Mark Luckner, executive director of the Maryland Community Health Resources Commission, also spoke before the crowd of local and state officials, school officials and community members.

Since opening its doors in December, the center has screened more than 900 fourth- and fifth-graders from Charles and St. Mary’s counties’ public schools who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under Title I. Dental and preventative services have been provided for 400 patients at the center.

Children in this age bracket were chosen because they already have their permanent teeth and are at risk of tooth decay and disease.

Operated by the Bel Alton High School Alumni Community Development Corp., the center was made possible by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the state health resources commission.

The center is staffed by Dr. Willie Winfree, who serves as the center’s director, and Dr. Stephen Harden, as well as office manager Rasheeda Henson.

Winfree said the plan is to bring on a full-time dentist by summer who is “of like mind” and agrees with the philosophy of the center. By his estimates, the center will be able to serve about 250 patients per month in the state-of-the-art dental facility.

Since December, Winfree has provided dental care for children as young as 7 and adults in their 70s. About 75 percent of patients are unable to pay for their dental care, he said.

In his remarks to the audience, Cooper said that he met with Joan Jones, president of the community center, five years ago to discuss opening a dental center for underserved residents.

At any given time, 1,000 people are walking around Southern Maryland with tooth decay, Cooper said. He pointed out that tooth decay can lead to other diseases, such as mouth cancer.

“You guys have no idea what this board has pulled off,” with spirit, perseverance and tenacity, Charle County Commissioner Debra M. Davis (D) said.

Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said that he is proud to live in a county where affordable health care is available before it’s “the law of the land.”

In closing remarks, Winfree said that he and Harden share the philosophy that “the patient is always first,” regardless of whether providers get paid for services.

A dental center for senior citizens also is planned, but screening of the three counties showed that a real need for dental care is among children.

Bel Alton Regional Dental Center is at 9501 Crain Highway, Suite 3. To make an appointment, call 301-539-7904.