Darlene Allen woke up at 4 a.m. today. She caught a bus from her McKeesport home to arrive at the A.J. Palumbo Center in uptown Pittsburgh by 5:24 a.m. She wanted to be in line early when registration began at 6 a.m. for the free dental clinic. Ms. Allen, who is 64, had heard about the event from her church — Bethlehem Baptist Church in McKeesport. Pain in a tooth has been bothering her for months, and getting worse. It was hard to chew. “They looked at it, they said it needs to come out,” she said Thursday morning, after having an Xray and while waiting to have the tooth pulled. “I don’t have insurance, so this was perfect,” she said.
The free care event, Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh, is hosted by Face2FaceHealing, in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, and is sponsored by TeleTracking Technologies, Inc., the PNC Foundation, UPMC, UPMC Health Plan and private donors.
Hundreds of people had registered by early morning Friday, with many more standing in line outside.
“Most of them are in pain, whether they are coming in to have a filing, a tooth removed, some are coming in to have partial dentures…some are coming in for root canals. Some are coming in for routine cleanings,” said Tammi Grumski, a nurse practitioner who was leading medical triage at the event.
“Unfortunately, people [here] do not have dental insurance,” she said. “They don’t see a dentist. They’ve gone years without seeing a dentist, so once they come here, there’s multiple issues.”
Many Medicare plans do not include dental care, she said.
“There’s a lot of working families that have health insurance that can’t afford dental insurance, so they’re here too,” she said.
In Pennsylvania, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program cover dental care for children; Medicaid offers dental care for adults, but with some limitations, according to the state’s Department of Human Services.
The event runs Friday with treatment provided until 4 p.m. It continues Saturday with treatment from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. Registration will begin at 6 a.m.
There are more than 600 volunteers assisting with the event.
“Access to oral health care is the largest unmet health care need in America,” said John Grant, director of The Pew Dental Campaign, part of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Nationally, there are 114 million Americans who don’t have dental insurance he said. Additionally, many people enrolled in the Medicaid program have difficulty seeing a dentist, as do other people with low incomes, or people who live in under-served areas such as rural places.
“Tooth decay isn’t like a cold or a flu or a fever. It only gets worse over time,” he said, and can lead to larger health problems if left untreated.
His organization advocates for dental therapists — a mid-level practitioner position sort of like a physician assistant or nurse practitioner in the medical field — to be able to treat more people.
Some free or low-cost dental care is available in other locations locally.
At The Squirrel Hill Health Center, a federally qualified health center, dental services such as cleaning, X-rays, and fillings are available on a sliding fee scale, said Susan Friedberg Kalson, the center’s CEO.
“There is a huge shortage of dental services for under-served people,” she said.