Photo courtesy of @UMD_OCE on Twitter

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On the morning of Sept. 8, the floor of the University of Maryland’s XFINITY Center held a hundred dental chairs. The hum of drills and swish of mouth washing devices became background noise as the university’s basketball court turned into a free dental clinic and health fair serving low-income or uninsured patients from the D.C. area.

“Honestly and truly I don’t think this facility has been put to a better use than it is today,” President of the Maryland State Senate Thomas V. Miller told the crowd.

More than 800 clinical volunteers provided care to over 1,000 patients during the two-day clinic last Friday and Sunday. The UMD School of Public Health Center for Health Equity and Catholic Charities of Washington put on the clinic, officially called the 2017 Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy and Health Equity Festival, for the second time since 2013. The health fair included free blood pressure checks, vision screenings, flu shots, and even haircuts.

“This is about helping those who can’t help themselves,” Miller said.

A growing dental health crisis prompted the clinic’s organizers to fill the gap between government-funded coverage for children and a lack of coverage for adults, says Deacon Jim Nalls, a director at Catholic Charities. For people who have health insurance and for those who don’t, a lack of dental coverage can mean going long periods of time without getting any care.

Nalls says patients lined up as early as 7 p.m. the night before Friday’s clinic, which was filled when it started at 7 a.m.

One patient, 67-year-old College Park resident Gussie Carter, got in line at 4:30 a.m. on Friday after registering for a cleaning, filling, and front tooth replacement on Thursday. This was her second time participating in the clinic. Her Medicare benefits do not include vision or dental coverage, which she doesn’t understand because eyes and teeth “are a part of your body.” Despite the long waits, she says she’s had good experiences with the clinic.

“I think this is a wonderful thing, I really do, and everybody’s so nice and friendly,” Carter says.

Some Medicare plans cover dental while others don’t. And though Medicaid is required to cover comprehensive dental services for children, this coverage is optional for adults and varies by state. D.C. offers extensive dental benefits to Medicaid recipients, but Virginia offers limited coverage, and Maryland Medicaid only covers emergency dental services for adults,according to the Center for Health Care Strategies, Inc. Emergency services include uncontrolled bleeding and traumatic injury.

“There’s a big void in our society as far as oral health is concerned,” Nalls says. “Everybody [here] for the most part is uninsured, but although we did bring a lot of folks from our homeless shelters and other social services like that, a lot of it’s the working poor.”

Currently, the Maryland State Dental Association is pushing for a reallocation of Medicaid dental funds for adults, according to Dr. Charles Doring, a member of the association and a practicing dentist in Rockville. He says an initiative between the Maryland State Dental Association and the Maryland Dental Action Coalition is looking to establish whether funds spent on emergency dental visits may be better used for preventative and routine care for adults.

Abill passed in May allows the Maryland Dental Action Coalition to conduct a study on emergency costs. Doring says routine dental visits are essential to preventing some of the more extensive work many patients had to undergo over the weekend as an outcome of going years without seeing a dentist.

“It’s better for the patients to be seen regularly and get restorative work and try and preserve the teeth,” says Doring. “If they wait too long, it gets into more extensive procedures, and if they don’t have insurance, that’s more expensive and that’s not affordable for a lot of people unfortunately.”

Until measurable reform can be made to provide adults with affordable dental care, Mission of Mercy clinics will continue to “treat the symptom,” according to Nalls.

“We’d love to go out of business. If Medicaid or some other methodology existed to address this huge need in our society, we wouldn’t need this,” he said. “We help anybody that needs help, that’s what we want to do, so this was a good opportunity.”