Dental Care Still Out of Reach For "Huge Piece of the Population"

May 8, 2014

Some people at the free clinic haven't had dental care in years.

Your teeth may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to health care. Dentists say oral health problems seldom get better on their own, and can point to disease elsewhere in the body, including diabetes and some forms of cancer and leukemia. Of course, a toothache can just be painful.

But if you’re an adult who doesn’t have dental insurance, caring for your teeth and your health can be a real challenge. The Affordable Care Act covers dental care for children, but not adults, and dental care isn't cheap.

There are at least 2,000 people in Connecticut who can attest to that. That's how many waited outside the XL Center in Hartford recently to get free dental work at the Connecticut Mission of Mercy dental clinic. For two days, the bottom floor of the center was filled with dentists' chairs, X-ray scanners, and volunteer dentists. There were so many people that hundreds had to line up overnight.

John Franklin was one of them. He stood in line for his grandmother, starting at around 3:00 am to get a 9:00 am appointment. She fell and cracked her teeth, so she needs to get one tooth extracted, as well as dentures.

"I didn't like standing outside, but it's all worth it," Franklin said. "I know how expensive this stuff is, and I'm glad to see people doing something like this."

Franklin's grandmother does have dental insurance, but it doesn't cover the procedures she needs. Franklin estimated it would have cost her thousands of dollars.

There's a broader issue, even if you do have dental insurance: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates there are 49 million people living in areas with a shortage of dentists. Those include parts of Hartford, New Haven and Fairfield Counties.

Dentists say the free dental clinics have not stopped growing in the past seven years, demonstrating an unmet need for dental care.
Credit Alan Yu / WNPR
These free dental clinics are now held in 26 states.

Some of the other people at the free clinic haven't had dental care in years, while others said they had to save up for a long time to afford a visit. 

The goal is for everyone to have such good dental care that they never have to host one of these clinics again, but the event has kept growing in its seven-year history, said Thomas Getreuer, one of the more than 200 dentists volunteering. He said he's often struck by the stories of the people who come.

"These are average people, the guy next door that's coming in here because they've lost their job, or they've lost their benefits, or they've lost a spouse, they're unable to work," Getreuer said. "Some major tragedy has befallen them, that hasn't allowed them to stay in the system and they've not been able to get the care that they need."

These free dental clinics are now held in 26 states, and New York gets its first one this June. There is still a long way to go before everyone get access to cheap and good dental care, said Bruce Tandy, a dentist and one of the organizers of the clinic.

"These are truly the underserved adults of the country," Tandy said. "We're showing that there is a need here and hopefully somebody figures out how to make this truly part of the healthcare system, we're not a healthcare system, we're a charitable dental project."

"Ultimately it's a social issue," Tandy said. He said he's been a practicing dentist for 35 years, and most of the new patients he sees nowadays are much healthier than the people he would see in the past, thanks to measure like fluoride in drinking water.

"There's been a huge change in oral health in this country," Tandy said. "We still have a huge piece of the population that doesn't get it, and that's who we see."