When 16-year-old Bria Jones emerged in the waiting room after having a cavity filled, her mother, Copper Oya, expressed a mixture of gratitude and relief.
“It brings peace of mind,” said the 38-year-old Northeast Minneapolis resident, whose job through a temp agency doesn’t pay enough to afford insurance. “It came at a good time.”
The family was one of many gathered at the University of Minnesota on Saturday to receive free care from about 250 dental students, faculty and staff as part of Give Kids a Smile Day, a nationwide event sponsored by the American Dental Association. All told, 140 children received care – up from 107 last year – some of whom had never been to a dentist before.
The sixth floor of Moos Tower was an energetic swarm of parents, kids and sky-blue dental scrubs. The dental work, performed mostly by third- and fourth-year students, took place in a large, open room, with parents generally staying in the waiting room.
“I get a sense from the parents, some in particular, you can tell they just don’t have a lot,” Patrick Lloyd, dean of the School of Dentistry, said. “For whatever reason, they haven’t been dealt the best hand. I think they come here and value what we’re doing.”
The amount of dental work performed this year likely exceeded last year’s, which was valued at more than $60,000. Procedures included cavity fillings, fluoride treatments, cleanings, sealants, X-rays and extractions. All the procedures were done free of charge.
A number of patients had tooth decay, which is the most common chronic disease among children and adolescents ages 6 to 19. The disease is four times more common than asthma among 14- to 17-year-olds and is known to cause tooth pain, fractured teeth, difficulty eating and in severe cases, death from an abscessed tooth.
The underlying goal of the event was to inspire dental students to give back to the less fortunate when they are in practice, third-year dental student Brian Peters said.
“Most of it is just getting that public service message out that there is a need out there and it’s important that we all do it,” he said.
With new estimates showing that nearly one in 10 Minnesotans didn’t have health insurance last year, families are even less likely to have dental coverage.
Among those who don’t have insurance, only about half have been to the dentist in the past year, Dan Shaw, associate professor of pediatric dentistry, said.
“If the family is struggling financially, it’s something they might pretty readily put on the back burner,” he said.
Publicly funded assistance programs like MinnesotaCare cover the basics such as fillings, X-rays and cleanings, yet about one-third of Minnesota dentists don’t accept such plans because the reimbursement rates don’t cover the cost of providing care. Often, dentists that do accept such plans need to limit the number of patients they see to stay afloat.
Under those programs, the clinic typically receives one-third the compensation the average patient would pay, yet every clinic still operates under fairly high fixed costs for staff, materials and rent, Dick Diercks, executive director of the Minnesota Dental Association, said.
At next year’s event, Shaw said he hopes to bring in representatives from Hennepin County to connect families with assistance programs. Many of the people he saw had no insurance and would likely qualify for such programs.
This was the University’s sixth annual GKAS day, although it’s been going on at state and national levels for eight years. Through the event, about 7,000 children in Minnesota and 320,000 in the United States receive free dental care. In Minnesota alone, the services are valued at $1.7 million.
As she looked around the waiting room, Oya said she was surprised she didn’t see more people and guessed that many didn’t know about the event.
Kim Williams, a 45-year-old uninsured stay-at-home mom, brought her 16-year-old daughter Brittani.
Although she’s been going to the University for her dental care for the past five years – where services cost about 40 percent less than at private clinics – she just learned about GKAS a few weeks ago.
“My oldest is 19, and if I would have known about this, I would’ve come years ago,” she said.