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Nonprofit dental clinic branching out: Caring Hands adding Pipestone, looking at other locations

Caring Hands Dental Clinic, an Alexandria-based nonprofit, plans to open a second location in Pipestone within the next two years. Here, clinic staff treat children from Haiti who attended a soccer camp in Alexandria in August 2016. (Beth Leipholtz / Echo Press) 1 / 2
Al Olsen2 / 2

Since its inception in 2006, Alexandria-based nonprofit Caring Hands Dental Clinic has expanded its building space, outreach and staff — and now, it's expanding geographically and opening a second location in Pipestone, and, eventually, a third in Meeker County.

Caring Hands, a dental clinic that provides care to people on state insurance programs such as MinnesotaCare and Medical Assistance, began 11 years ago as a small operation but Al Olsen, executive director, says it quickly became obvious there was a great need for dental care in Minnesota.

Over the years, the clinic has expanded its mobile clinic outreach to cities such as Olivia, Pipestone, Albany and Melrose, and is constantly getting more calls from people in need of services.

Olsen says that since 2014, staff members have been traveling three hours to Pipestone often enough that it made the most sense to open a second location in the area.

"Last year we were on the road about 75 days," he said. "It's getting difficult. The demand is so great."

Currently, only one dentist in Pipestone sees patients on state insurance. But Olsen says there are about 1,179 people in Pipestone County on state programs, which is more than one dentist can take on.

According to Olsen, the hope is that the clinic will be open within two years. He says the project is already moving fast and that the Pipestone clinic will potentially be in the Pipestone County Medical Center.

The clinic is receiving support through a grant of an undetermined amount from PrimeWest Health, an organization that partners with 13 Minnesota counties to manage and pay for the health care of 38,500 residents.

The grant will be given through PrimeWest's Community Reinvestment Program with the goal of opening the Pipestone clinic, as well as one in Meeker or neighboring McLeod County afterward, says PrimeWest CEO Jim Przybilla.

"We have a great need for improving access in Pipestone County," Przybilla said. "They have one dentist who will accept people on Medicaid sometimes but that's only through Caring Hands and he's ready to retire. Without that dentist, they won't have any access locally."

One potential hurdle, Olsen says, is staffing.

"There is a shortage of dentists across the state," he said. "The economy is good, but it's the springing up of corporate dental offices, there's getting to be thousands of them. That's our competition for recruitment."

To combat this, Olsen is working to find a way for employees at the office to receive student loan forgiveness.

"We're working with the Pipestone area businesses and ourselves and others to draft our own private loan forgiveness program," he said. "It's a loan repayment program for recruiting and retention of dentists, dental therapists, dental hygienists and dental assistants."

Olsen says there are two other locations where Caring Hands may open additional locations, but they haven't been named publicly as Pipestone, then Meeker, are the priorities now.

"I'm very confident it is going to happen," he said. "We're going forward and we're going to make it work."

Beth Leipholtz

Beth is a reporter at the Echo Press. She graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in May 2015 with a degree in Communication and Hispanic Studies. Journalism has always been her passion, but she also enjoys blogging and graphic design. In her spare time, she's most likely at Crossfit or at home with her boyfriend and three dogs.

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