Hours before daybreak, the line had formed Friday outside Cal Expo. By the heat of mid-morning, hundreds of people were fanning themselves, awaiting the biggest free dental clinic of the year.
Most paid no mind to the wait, saying they figured time was a small price to pay for a much needed set of pearly whites.
The two-day event, first in Sacramento since 2012, aims to provide millions of dollars in dental work to 2,000 uninsured or under-insured patients at no charge.
Hosted by the California Dental Association Foundation, the two-day CDA Cares event is held twice a year, rotating to different cities to fill gaps left by what dentists call a broken oral care system.
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Dental coverage is offered to low-income adults through Denti-Cal, the oral health component of the state-funded Medi-Cal program. The state cut Denti-Cal in 2009 due to budget constraints. That left millions with no oral care until 2014, when program reinstatement began in phases.
Now available to most adults, Denti-Cal benefits remain insufficient for the state’s low-income population. That’s where CDA Cares’ emergency services step in, said Dr. Gary Ackerman, CDA member and chair of the Sacramento clinic.
Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, said even with the CDA Cares events, the need is great.
“It’s a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” he said. “The need is just so tremendous, and the resources we have to deal with it are very minimal ... every time we go it’s the same scene.”
The event, supported by the CDA and its partner sponsors, costs about $250,000. But the value of services received from the 1,000 volunteer dentists is far greater – an estimated $2 million – in fillings, cleanings, extractions, X-rays and denture fittings, Ackerman said.
Through 6 p.m. Friday and from 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, the dentists are seeing patients whose mouths have suffered years of neglect. Some are riddled with infections, abscesses and gaping holes where there once were healthy teeth.
All patients are accepted, and no identification is required. They watch an oral health education video and receive a medical screening before visiting one of many stations for dental care. Most are treated and sent home within four hours after they sign in.
The long lines are a testament to a history of patchy dental coverage in California, said Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, a CDA member who practiced dentistry for years before taking office.
About 30 percent of Californians face barriers to oral care, according to the organization. Last December, the Bureau of State Audits faulted California for poor access to children’s dental services.
Even with coverage for adults reinstated, the low-income population still grapples with a lack of providers willing to accept Denti-Cal at the current low reimbursement rates, said Wood, who practiced dentistry before taking office. He helped out on Friday, as he has for most CDA Cares events.
Wood said he has not seen any reduction in demand at the event since the Denti-Cal program was reinstated.
Many at Friday’s event said they are enrolled in Denti-Cal but either could not get a dental appointment or could not afford dental work, even with insurance.
Russell Lowe, of Folsom, was looking forward to a new set of front teeth Friday. He lost his originals in a childhood skateboarding accident, he said, and then lost his replacements a few years ago.
He and his girlfriend Melissa Haser are on Denti-Cal, he said, but new teeth were not covered under his plan.
“I need my two front teeth,” he said. “They didn’t come for Christmas.”
Lowe, who is unemployed, said he had four job interviews last month. He and Haser believe his appearance is keeping him from getting hired. The couple joined the line at 4 a.m. Friday and were still waiting at 11 a.m.
“This can totally change everything for us,” Haser said.
While the weekend event serves mainly adults, there is a station for pediatric dental care.
The low Denti-Cal reimbursement rates affect parents’ ability to find dentists for their children, said Julie Beyers, program planner for oral health at the First5 Sacramento Commission. The funding agency promotes health programs for children from birth to age 5 and has funded five pediatric dental centers in Sacramento County and one mobile dental clinic to improve dental options for kids.
The CDA Cares event is a big help, she said.
“There’s no question that both adults and children that are there are getting outstanding dental care,” she said. “But it’s still unfortunate, and a challenge, that there’s a need for such an event.
“We’d hope there would be a way for people to get regular care and not have to wait for once- or twice-a-year events like this, that do fill a huge gap.”
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