Northern Light C.A. Dean Hospital in Greenville. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

GREENVILLE — Mainers in and around Greenville have been visiting the dental practice at Northern Light C.A. Dean Hospital for more than 40 years.

Starting with Dr. Norman Hill in 1980, several dentists have housed their practices there. Dr. Douglas Huntley has spent the last 18 and a half years at the dental practice, providing care to area residents, including low-income families and the elderly.

Huntley’s patients will soon have to travel elsewhere for their dental appointments, as the lease expires in April 2022 and the building will be demolished. In recent months, Northern Light Health announced major overhauls at some of its hospitals across the state, including rebuilding C.A. Dean Hospital and replacing century-old facilities with those that carry a smaller footprint.

The construction project is meant to modernize the hospital and draw on lessons learned during the pandemic to better serve patients. But a side effect of the overhaul is the loss of the dental office, which Huntley said serves about 5,000 patients from Greenville, Jackman, Dover-Foxcroft and other nearby towns. This is problematic for rural Mainers, who have relied on the private practice for decades and already have limited access to dental health care, Huntley said.

Huntley, who has a satellite dental practice in Skowhegan, was hopeful when Northern Light Health first announced its plans to rebuild C.A. Dean because the hospital has catered to a rural population for years.

“I have to give them credit for the last 41 years,” he said, “but they’re ending the relationship. … It’s a real challenge to do health care in such a rural environment because the populations are so sparse and so far spread apart.”

People living in rural areas face specific health care challenges, such as fewer hospitals and medical facilities to access, along with financial and travel limitations, Huntley said. Fewer providers want to work in rural areas because they assume there’s a slimmer population of patients, he added.

“There’s a small number of administrators who are making health care decisions for a whole lot of people,” Huntley said, which concerns him. “The idea that has dawned on me over the years is that building some big, grandiose office is not what rural populations need. They need smaller things that are located closer to them that are user-friendly.”

C.A. Dean Hospital leaders and staff members are looking forward to the modernization project, which will support the future of healthcare in the Moosehead Lake Region, Northern Light Health spokesperson Suzanne Spruce said.

“The modernized facility is designed to meet patient needs more efficiently, to ensure ease of care for our patients and maintenance of the building,” she said. “Our plan allows us to fully maximize the space available to provide health services to our patients, and currently there is no unused space available for lease by other providers.”

The new building at C.A. Dean Hospital would be an 11,500-square-foot structure behind the existing campus, which will contain five new inpatient beds in single-occupancy rooms as well as the hospital’s emergency department.

The new hospital will also include a new helipad and garage for ambulances. Although parts of the hospital will be demolished, the east wing — C.A. Dean’s newest structure — will feature 10 new nursing care beds in single-occupancy rooms, according to Department of Health and Human Services documents.

Jennette Fisher, one of Huntley’s patients, discovered during a recent visit that the building where the dental office is located will be torn down.

“Greenville has a significant elderly population,” Fisher wrote to the Bangor Daily News. “Some folks will be fine driving out of town to see a dentist but plenty of people won’t. Will they just stop seeing a dentist?”

Once Huntley finds a new space, Fisher may follow, but she said it depends on what dental practices are located closest to her home.

“I never had to look around to see what my options were because he’s been right here,” said Fisher, who has been a patient of Huntley’s for about 12 years. “I’ve gotten the sense that dental care is not widely available in rural Maine. So we’re pretty lucky to have him.”

While Huntley’s practice has leased space at C.A. Dean Hospital for a long time, it’s unusual to find dentists located in hospitals, Spruce said. 

“To be clear, this is not a hospital program,” she said. “This is a private dentist who leased space and that lease ends in spring of 2022. There is other office space that can be leased in the Greenville area.”

Spruce noted a fairly new dental care office in Monson, which is “offering expanded hours and accepting new patients,” she said.

Huntley, who has a front desk receptionist and two hygienists who work alongside him, is looking for a new space to lease. He hopes to stay in or around Greenville, where the majority of his patients are used to seeing him, though real estate is competitive in the town, he said.

“I’ve been open with them [patients],” he said. “I haven’t been able to tell where I’m going to land. They have some questions and concerns about what to do with their dental needs after April.”

Bangor Daily News reporter David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.