White Smiles dental clinic in Fort Kent will close its doors at the end of the month. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

FORT KENT, Maine — White Smiles Family Dentistry in Fort Kent will close this month because it can’t find dentists.

In an April 4 letter addressed to patients, Dr. Joseph White announced the Fort Kent office will close April 27.

“Despite our best efforts and despite exhausting our resources we have been unable to find a dentist to provide care in the Fort Kent office,” White said.

The practice will retain its offices in Fort Fairfield and Presque Isle, according to White Smiles staff. Hygienists will relocate, but two receptionists at the Fort Kent location will lose their jobs.

The closure will intensify oral care struggles in Aroostook County, which has grappled with a shortage of dentists and dental assistants. The closure of White Smiles will leave only one dental provider in the St. John Valley. Hundreds of patients will need to travel at least an hour south or cross the border into Canada for care, which many did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Border crossing restrictions have loosened since then, but not all dental insurance plans allow for international treatment. And finding a dentist in nearby Canada is no easier.

Grand Falls, New Brunswick, dentist Dr. Rene Morin has not accepted new patients for a year and a half due to a shortage of dentists on that side of the border, said receptionist Sylvie LaPlante.

Some clinics near Grand Falls have closed, too, so a lot of people are searching for dentists, LaPlante said.

White Smiles patient Peter Cyr said he will remain with the practice even though it means traveling at least an hour to Fort Fairfield or Presque Isle.

“If I have something to get at Walmart I’ll make an afternoon of it and save my shopping for when I go down there,” Cyr said. “I’ve been very happy there, but there are some people who can’t go out of town.”

The clinic’s closure will leave Fish River Rural Health as the only dental provider in the St. John Valley. The non-profit organization has three full-time dentists in Fort Kent, Eagle Lake and Madawaska, as well as a part-time dentist.

Those locations are already overloaded with patients and are still trying to absorb hundreds of people who came to them when the border closed due to the pandemic, said Heather Pelletier, Fish River Rural Health executive director.

“These changes happened in very short order,” Pelletier said. “There’s just shy of 13,000 residents in the St. John Valley, so the ratio of patients to dentists is certainly challenging.”

Pelletier did not specify how many dental patients Fish River has.

Fish River is seeking another dental provider in Fort Kent but has been unsuccessful because of the national shortage of dentists, Pelletier said.

She hopes they can secure another dentist soon.

“We’re doing interviews and really trying to stand ready,” she said.