With free clinic, dentists hope to fill gaps in care, not just cavities

2012-06-24T11:00:00Z 2012-07-10T11:59:17Z With free clinic, dentists hope to fill gaps in care, not just cavitiesDAVID WAHLBERG | Wisconsin State Journal | dwahlberg@madison.com | 608-252-6125 madison.com

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."

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(7) Comments

  1. username
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    username - June 25, 2012 9:43 am
    @kriley: "Can you imagine the howls of outrage in the US if the people with money could get better care?" This is already true in the USA. People without health insurance coverage or inadequate coverage already don't get care or get limited care due to finances.
  2. Bazinga
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    Bazinga - June 24, 2012 9:59 pm
    A big THANK YOU to all of the dentists who participate in this program. Your efforts are sincerely appreciated.
  3. BananaSplitz
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    BananaSplitz - June 24, 2012 7:07 pm
    Preach it. For such an important part of health care the coverage is paltry. Dental issues can be the canary in the coal mine.
  4. kriley
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    kriley - June 24, 2012 5:36 pm
    A good example of how universal health care doesn't work is the British NHS dental program. Everyone is entitled to free dental care but there is no money to fund it. If you have a dentist you've used for many years you get OK coverage, but when your dentist dies or retires or you move away you go on a long static waiting list for another dentist. However if you buy a private plan or can pay for what you need--- no waiting list. Can you imagine the howls of outrage in the US if the people with money could get better care? I used to wonder why there was never a revolt about the NHS till I realized the Brits are just used to substandard coverage. And don't give me the argument that they live longer statistically than us. They are a lot more exercise oriented than we are and they don't try to eat themselves to death.
  5. laurabora
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    laurabora - June 24, 2012 2:32 pm
    Well said!
  6. Badger Pete
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    Badger Pete - June 24, 2012 10:03 am
    Medicaid does "cover" these services, but the Medicaid program doesn't pay enough to even cover the dentist's expenses in delivering the care -- overhead, staff salaries, and supplies. This means that a dentist loses money providing care to Medicaid patients. We don't expect bridge or highway contractors to do work for the state at a loss, but somehow it is supposed to be acceptable to expect dentists to work under these conditions. What gives here?
  7. NanWan
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    NanWan - June 24, 2012 9:46 am
    I am still confused why basic dental care isn't covered by Medicaid forcing these folks into the Emergency Room. I also cannot figure out why those of us who are fortunate enough to have dental plans through their employers still do not have adequate coverage for common procedures like cavities and crowns. 50% coverage is better than no coverage at all, but is still a hardship for so many of us. Also, a $1000 lifetime cap towards orthodontia care is pathetic. Have you ever heard of anyone paying less than about $4000 (and usually much more) for basic braces for their kids these days? Dental health directly affects to physical healthand well-being and should be treated as such with many more affordable treatment options available for those with, and without insurance coverage. Just my opinion.
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