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Health Team

Dentists Spread Blessings Across State

Posted August 29, 2007 6:18 p.m. EDT
Updated August 29, 2007 7:21 p.m. EDT

Although the plight of those without health insurance is well-documented, more Americans are also going without dental insurance.

Most workers lose their dental benefits when they retire and switch to Medicare, which doesn't cover routine dental care. Medicaid in North Carolina offers some assistance to poorer families, but many dentists turn those patients away because Medicaid funding only covers 50 percent to 65 percent of their normal fees.

Dental workers with North Carolina Missions of Mercy are stepping into that gap. A core group of dentists, dental hygienists and other volunteers sets up a traveling, two-day clinic in localities across the state.

"It's all purely voluntary. Nobody's being paid anything, and that's what this program is about," said Dr. Steve Slott, a dentist and one of the organizers of North Carolina Missions of Mercy.

The group brings 30 chairs to each clinic, and wherever they go, those chairs fill up quickly, Slott said. To qualify for free care, patients must have an income no higher than twice the national poverty level.

"We can go to any area of the state, and they'll be lined up outside the door," Slott said.

At Stewartsville Baptist Church in Laurinburg on a recent Friday and Saturday, for example, mouths weren't opened in worship but for the dentist's drill.

"It's a blessing to be able to go somewhere and get some help, and not have to worry about paying for it," Rev. Daniel White said.

White invited members of his congregation to the clinic where they were able to correct years of dental problems - in one sitting and at no charge. Patients were grateful for the service, which, they said, was much needed in the area.

"There's a lot of uninsured people around here. It's low income, uninsured," said Iris Young, a clinic patient who had waited more than a year to be able to have a cavity treated.

Many clinic patients suffer from dental problems that have gone untreated for much longer than Young's, Slott said. They often need teeth pulled before decay causes bigger health problems.

"It's an infection, just like an infection anywhere in the body. It can cause pain, swelling, sickness or even cause death," Slott said.

With more than $1 million in donated services, Missions of Mercy expects to serve more than 3,700 patients this year. The next clinics will be held in Tarboro on Sept. 7 and 8.

White said he's thankful to be one of those patients.

"Jesus paid it all, and I thank God for this particular clinic," he said.