When you think you need security for a day of free dental care, as is being offered to Saratoga County residents in Ballston Spa today, that’s a pretty sure sign there’s a demand. Hats off to Thomas Pray, a Ballston Spa dentist who organized the event after meeting last year with the founder of a program called Dentistry from the Heart, and the 22 other dentists, surgeons and hygienists who have volunteered their time. They expect to see more than 100 people between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., on a first-come, first-served basis, taking X-rays, cleaning, filling or pulling teeth, whichever is needed most.
The concept and spirit are the same as those behind the Schenectady free clinic, a noble, good-hearted effort by volunteer doctors, nurses and other health professionals to help Schenectady’s army of uninsured and underinsured manage their chronic illnesses. Unfortunately, that clinic’s organizers just announced that, after 10 years of operation, it will be closing this summer due to the difficulty of finding funds, mostly to buy and provide prescription drugs.
Dental care is no less a part of personal health than is medical care — and, if neglected, can lead to nutritional issues, medical problems such as diabetes, and medical emergencies such as an abscessed tooth. It can also hurt one’s personal appearance, affecting social confidence and even the ability to get a job.
And too many poor people neglect it. The reason isn’t just that dental care is expensive and they lack the money to pay. This may be true of the working poor, but the very poor have Medicaid, which in New York state does pay for dental care.
A big part of the problem is that many dentists, including in the Capital Region, don’t take Medicaid, citing burdensome paperwork, slow and inadequate reimbursement.
But even when Medicaid patients are accepted, as they are in Schenectady at Hometown Health Center and Ellis Dental Health Center, the poor tend not to go — at least until their teeth and gums are in such bad shape that they need extractions and surgery.
The state and county, which both pay for Medicaid, need to do more education and outreach for children and families to make sure they understand the importance and techniques of oral hygiene, as well as the need for regular dental visits. They must also find ways to get more dentists to participate in the Medicaid program.
Efforts like Mr. Pray’s — and a similar, even bigger one, called Mission of Mercy, scheduled for June 2014 at Hudson Valley Community College — may be dramatic, worthy and helpful, but they are not enough.