Dental care provided for those who need it, but can't get it

Dentists volunteer at Minneapolis Convention Center

Sloane Martin
September 07, 2018 - 10:15 am
Dentists providing free care

Entercom

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For the second straight day, the Minneapolis Convention Center was buzzing with activity.

The buzzing on Friday, and now on Saturday, comes from dentist chairs set up to provide dental care for people who need it, but for some reason can't get it.

When people are weighed down by bills and rent and are just getting by, dental care often gets put on the back burner.

That can lead to bigger problems to their health.

"People have a lot of unmet medical needs, it's kind of the gateway to health," said dentist Loren Taple of Eagan. "If their mouth is not working properly, their whole body health sometimes does not work properly."

Taple is in his sixth year volunteering for the annual Mission of Mercy put on by the Minnesota Dental Association and the Minnesota Dental Foundation.

Volunteer dentists, hygienists, dental assistants, translators and more are making it possible for around 2,000 people of all ages to get dental care they don't have access to. 

The first in line showed up Thursday afternoon ahead of the 5:30 a.m. opening on Friday. 

Dozens more came between midnight and 3 a.m. and officials expect the same heading into the second and final day tomorrow.

They receive a routine exam and then go to different stations for services like cleaning, filling, tooth extraction, root canals and more.

"I need that tooth, because I have an abscess," said Dwayne Fitzpatrick, a veteran who's been in and out of homeless shelters. "You can see the swelling. I woke up and it was all swollen."

Maurice Weatherspoon says his wife pushes him to get an annual cleaning, but it's not easy. 

"They would take me in and do the exam, and they'd say my insurance doesn't cover everything," he said. "I'd have to come up with a huge co-pay."

The Minnesota Dental Foundation says more than a quarter of Minnesotans don't have dental insurance and nearly 40 percent of children in low-income households haven't seen a dentist in the last year. One in eight people put off dental work last year due to the cost.

Taple knows there's a solution, and it starts in at the capitol in St. Paul with management of the Minnesota Care Tax Fund.

"The dentists are being reimbursed at such a low rate that nobody can participate in these programs," he said. "If they would raise the reimbursement rate, most people, I would say that are treating patients here, would be treating these patients in their offices, and we wouldn't have to have people lined up overnight to come in here."

The clinic runs until 5 p.m. on Saturday. 

Organizers advise people to come very early to avoid a backlog and likely cutoff around mid-afternoon.