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Max Pohle Dental Clinic

Maggy Knight, of Madison, receives an IV for anesthesia before dental care at Meriter Hospital in this file photo. Meriter's Max W. Pohle Dental Clinic, which has provided such care for years, will close June 26.

Meriter, St. Mary’s and UW hospitals are planning a joint program to give dental care to patients who require full sedation, which would replace the service after Meriter’s Max W. Pohle Dental Clinic closes this month.

The program would treat patients with developmental disabilities and other conditions who need anesthesia in operating rooms for dental care, but it won’t be in place when Meriter’s clinic ends June 26, Meriter-UnityPoint Health spokeswoman Leah Huibregtse said.

The University of Minnesota School of Dentistry in Minneapolis has agreed to take Wisconsin patients with special needs in the meantime, though it has a months-long waiting list.

“Obviously, it’s not the most convenient location,” Huibregtse said. But, “I think it’s a good interim option for people around here.”

The program being discussed by the three Madison hospitals “will be a long-lasting resource in our community,” Huibregtse said. “All of us are very optimistic and committed to working together on this.”

St. Mary’s and UW Hospital spokeswomen confirmed the talks but said it was too early to provide details.

Advocates for the disabled, along with the Wisconsin Dental Association, the Wisconsin Hospital Association and the state Department of Health Services, have been discussing possible solutions since Meriter announced in August it would close the clinic by July.

More than half of the sedation patients come from outside of Dane County. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee also provides such dental care, mostly to children.

Meriter said it lost nearly $600,000 a year through the clinic, largely because of low Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement for the sedation patients.

Meriter said it would give the $1 million remaining in the Pohle fund to Access Community Health Centers to expand its dental services. Meriter opened the clinic in 1977 with gifts from three sisters of Dr. Max Pohle, a Madison dentist who died in 1951.

Access, which has hired three more dentists, is expected to absorb most of the Meriter clinic’s 1,800 or so annual patients. Access can’t treat the 95 or so patients each year who require sedation because it doesn’t have an operating room, Access spokesman Paul Harrison said.

The University of Minnesota dental school sees about 400 special needs patients from Minnesota and a few other states each year, said Jeff Ogden, chief administrative officer. The service loses about $250,000 a year, but tuition and state support helps, he said.

The school already takes some Wisconsin patients and told Meriter it could take more, though it has a four- or five-month wait for appointments, Ogden said. A new facility to open in January will expand capacity, he said.

Dr. David Walther, a Madison dentist, treats some special needs patients at Meriter outside of the Pohle clinic.

“I’m excited to hear that Madison will continue to provide this service in some form,” Walther said, noting that going to Minnesota is “not that workable” for many patients with special needs. “These patients typically don’t travel well.”

The Pohle clinic houses a dental residency program to teach dentists how to treat special needs patients. That program likely won’t continue under the new service being planned by the three Madison hospitals, Huibregtse said.

That could make it harder to find dentists to provide the care in the future, said Forbes McIntosh, a Madison lobbyist for the Wisconsin Dental Association.

“We’re losing that pipeline,” he said.

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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.