More than 150 dental chairs will be set up Friday and Saturday at Alliant Energy Center for a free clinic expected to provide extractions, fillings, dentures and cleanings to about 3,000 patients.
At least 1,500 volunteer dentists, hygienists and others will provide an estimated $1.75 million in free care at the Wisconsin Dental Association's Mission of Mercy clinic, according to the WDA.
The event follows a report last month from the Oral Health Coalition of Dane County that identified an oral health "crisis." Dental pain led to more than 11,000 visits to emergency rooms, urgent care centers or primary care clinics in the county in 2010, with the ER visits costing $1.6 million, the report stated.
Some dentists routinely give free care to patients with little or no insurance or treat those on Medicaid at a loss, said Gene Shoemaker, a Waukesha dentist who is a lead organizer of the mass clinic.
But the need is overwhelming, Shoemaker said, and, "as small business people, we can only afford to give so much."
The mass clinic expects to treat about 3,000 patients, some of whom might qualify for more than one type of care, Shoemaker said. A total of 3,500 patient visits is expected.
"It shows in a large group setting that our profession does care," he said.
It will be the state's fourth annual Mission of Mercy clinic. In the past three years — in La Crosse, Sheboygan and Wausau — most patients had no dental insurance but some were on Medicaid. Many were in pain or had infections, Shoemaker said. Their ages ranged from 1 to 91.
With lawmakers invited to attend, there's also a political purpose.
"We want to challenge legislators to work with us on solutions to oral health problems," said Allison Dowd, a Fitchburg dentist who also is a lead organizer.
Dowd is one of six dentists at Children's Dental Center of Madison, which has three clinics in the area. About a third of the center's patients are on Medicaid, a higher proportion than at most practices.
The dental association wants the state to increase Medicaid reimbursements to dentists, but state officials have said the budget is too tight. The group also wants to expand the capacity of dental assistants and start a dental school loan forgiveness program for dentists who work in underserved areas, among other proposals.
The mass clinic will help address the crisis identified by the Dane County oral health report but won't solve it, said Lisa Bullard-Cawthorne, a health education coordinator with Public Health Madison and Dane County.
"There's going to be a lot of people who will get dental care, and that's a great thing," she said. "But one of the dangers of these big events is the lack of follow-up. Ideally, you want to provide a dental home people can go back to."
Dowd said follow-up care is available for a couple of weeks for emergencies stemming from services provided at the event, such as dry sockets from extractions or fillings that break.
Otherwise, patients must seek out providers willing to treat them as they would throughout the year.
"This is not meant to be a solution," Dowd said. "It's a way to get people out of immediate pain and meet their immediate needs."