Community Health Centers of Southeastern Iowa expects to open the facility June 1 with two dentists.

KEOKUK - U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst continued her swing through southeast Iowa Thursday with a tour of a much-needed dental clinic in Keokuk.

Community Health Centers of Southeastern Iowa is in the midst of construction on a $2.8 million dental clinic on Main Street here.

Ernst, Iowa’s junior U.S. senator, toured the work-in-progress facility Thursday afternoon and met with local stakeholders in the project.

Federally-qualified Community Health Centers serve predominantly low-income populations because of their sliding fees scale and ability to accept Medicaid recipients.

Ron Kemp, CEO of Community Health Centers of Southeastern Iowa, said a $1 million grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services made building the clinic possible in an area critically low on dentists.

RaeAnn Herrick with the Lee County Health Department echoed those concerns, telling Ernst, “Before this CHC site we had no dentists in Keokuk accepting new Medicaid (patients) and 40 percent of the population of Keokuk is Medicaid-enrolled.

When the dental clinic opens June 1, Kemp said they will employ two dentists and a hygienist, with plans to expand their staff in 2019.

“The Medicaid expansion actually changed what we saw trying to get into dental,” Kemp said, referencing former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which gave states the option to expand financial parameters for who was eligible for Medicaid. “Adults were able to get coverage through Medicaid, that’s when we had a huge change. If Medicaid wasn’t funding us the way it is, we wouldn’t have gotten this done.”

Community Health Centers like those in southeast Iowa spent much of 2017 worrying about whether Congress would reauthorize their federal funding, a concern finally alleviated in February when they passed a short-term spending bill that provided CHCs funding for the next two years.

Ernst said she and her staff heard “everyday” from Iowa’s CHCs about the stress financial uncertainty placed on them, and agreed it was incumbent upon Congress to devise a better budget process.

“It has been very frustrating. We don’t want to go through this anymore,” Ernst said of the short-term funding bills, known as continuing resolutions, that have plagued Congress for years. “We are trying to reform the way we do our budget and our appropriations process.”

Erst said she was a member of a select, bipartisan committee of House and Senate members working on a budget reform proposal to bring before both chambers of Congress for a vote.

“The hope is that we don’t go through this anymore and we find the continuity that’s needed for these programs.”

Following her visit at the clinic, the senator had a brief meeting at the Keokuk Chamber of Commerce, where she learned how local officials and community members were working to attract professionals to the area.

Michael Greenwald, a city council member and former chamber president, has led a task force over the last several years to bring dentists here.

This year, Greenwald said, three new dentists will be practicing in Keokuk.

He plans to continue the task force in Keokuk, not only seeking health care professionals, but people across all industries.

“We can’t just wait for people to come here,” said city manager Aaron Burnett. “We need to go out and find people.”