82 Million Americans Lack Dental Coverage

I recently volunteered to work on a Saturday at a free dental clinic sponsored by the Georgia Dental Association and the Georgia Mission of Mercy that was held at a large local church. As a lawyer who specializes in employment law, I have been aware for some time that dental problems often make it difficult for people to get and keep jobs.

The evening before I was scheduled to work, my daughter called to say that the clinic had made both the local and national news. The sponsors had expected to treat 2000 people over the two days of the clinic, but were shocked when 4000 showed up the first morning, many of whom had traveled long distances and waited for hours for the doors to open. Every person I saw that Saturday wore a wristband that had two numbers on it, which meant that they had been at the clinic for two days. The clinic had not been widely publicized because the sponsors thought they might be overwhelmed. They were, anyway.

More than 300 dentists and a 1000 dental assistants and lab technicians donated their time to the clinic. The lab technicians worked late into the night the first night to complete plates and bridges for those being treated. Some cases were difficult for even the professional staff to deal with. One woman who needed extensive dental work had not seen a dentist for 13 years because of the cost of taking care of her autistic son, whom she had brought with her. Some patients held their faces. Others cried openly.

Despite the amazing efforts of the volunteer dental professionals, only slightly more than half of those waiting received care.

A dentist friend tells me that the number one reason for admission to the emergency room at Grady Hospital is dental pain. Dental care is often overlooked by those with limited financial resources until it is too late and the pain becomes intolerable. Many of those who came to the dental clinic had lost their dental insurance when they lost their jobs, and others had never had insurance.

The clinic spotlighted the increasing urgency of dealing with this serious health problem that is often ignored. Because of cost cutting by both employers and the government, however, donated care, including free clinics such as this one in Atlanta, may be the last resort, however inadequate, for many of the poor and unemployed.

Ruth W. Woodling
Labor and Employment Attorney

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