Dental care is a much needed part of overall health but isn't always affordable

12/14/12 Janelle Irwin
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With or without insurance, dental care is often neglected in health care decisions because it’s so expensive. But good dental care is about more than just a pretty smile, it’s a vital part of overall health.

“From a medical standpoint, there’s a link between poor dental care and systemic problems – heart attack, strokes, cancer – so we’re doing our part to alleviate that.”

  1. Merrell Williams is a dentist at his own private practice on N. Armenia in Tampa. He said those illnesses can be triggered by poor oral health because the mouth is a breeding ground for bacteria if left unchecked.

“Well, the bacteria within the oral cavity gets within the bloodstream, travels to the heart and over a period of time causes chronic cardiac problems. So, for those individuals who haven’t had dental care in months to years, they have a plethora, overabundance of bacteria – the very nasty bacteria and over a period of time it causes chronic cardiac problems.”

And dental problems can be painful. But many health insurance providers cover limited, if any oral procedures. That’s on top of the countless number of residents who don’t have any health coverage. Kimberly, who chose not to give her last name, is covered by WellCare, an insurance company that caters to the state’s Medicare and Medicaid programs.

“It made me so sick I had to go to the hospital. I’m hoping, because dentists don’t like my insurance, so I’m hoping he can at least take that one that’s the problem, get that one out – get the infection to go away and then try to re-work at the beginning of the year with a new dentist to get them all taken care of.”

Kimberly will have her painful tooth removed, but she needs many more extracted – possibly all of them.

“I haven’t had very much luck. On my birthday I ended up crying because I went to two dentists and they’re like, ‘pay $104 just to talk to the dentist and we’ll see what we can do for you.’ Who has $104 when you called and made the appointment and you asked if there was a co-pay and they didn’t tell you nothing until you showed up?”

Hillsborough County residents who don’t have health insurance or who are under-insured are getting free services at the T. Merrell Williams dental practice. Kimberly joined the line at about 6 this morning. She was behind about 100 people and by ten had barely moved.

“We signed up when we first got here and at 8 o’clock they resigned us again and gave us numbers and they have served us donuts and coffee and water and we’re still waiting.”

Some people camped out to make sure they were seen first. Lynn Varady came in the middle of the night and was one of the first ten patients to be seen. She had a cracked tooth removed. Varady doesn’t have health insurance and hasn’t been able to find any social services to help out.

“The things I’ve checked into only really help you if you have kids. So, I really don’t know. I’m 48-years-old, I’ve never ever gotten any money from the government. So, I have really no clue what to do or how to get it. People tell me you can get it.”

People like her are left with no choice but to wait in line for hours to get even the most basic dental care. The dental practice is offering cleanings, extractions and check-ups to the first 100 patients. Elliot Levy brought his fiancée to have a tooth pulled.

“She’s been in pain for the last couple of months, no insurance and we took her to another place to have her get her teeth worked on and they wanted, like, $200 for each tooth to be extracted.”

Without insurance, that’s something the couple just can’t afford. Levy is glad he and his fiancée were able to find a free service, but he said more needs to be done to provide dental care for people who can’t afford it.

“They need to get a better system in place for dental care for sure. It’s really – especially in Florida here – it’s really bad. I think healthcare period is really bad out here.”

There are several clinics throughout Hillsborough County that provide dental care on a sliding scale based on a person’s ability to pay. A county website has a list of services available for people under 21. Hillsborough County also fluoridates its water supply because it is widely thought to improve dental health. Pinellas County stopped fluoridating its water last year, but after push back from voters this election, they reversed that decision.

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How will healthcare reform affect dental coverage? Read Joanne Fontana’s perspective here: